What Urbanites Can Do To Slow Down Climate Change

Feeling overwhelmed by the latest news from the IPCC? Read on to see what you can do in your neighbourhood

When it was signed in December 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement was described as a landmark agreement; one that would chart “… a new course in the global climate effort.” Its central goal was to limit global temperature change to “…well below 2°C, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.” It was, rightly, applauded for its ambition, but for many island nations, an increase of 2°C could be truly catastrophic. And so, the UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to look specifically at what actions would be required to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and to analyze the likely impact of a 1.5°C increase in temperature compared to a 2°C increase.

Two weeks ago, the IPCC published their findings – the result of reviewing 6,000 research papers – in a special report that they’ve made freely available online. It made headlines all over the world, including the Guardian’s “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe”. While some ‘news outlets’ have accused the IPCC report of being alarmist or untrustworthy, most informed commentators suggest exactly the opposite. Climate scientist Professor Michael Mann even tweeted that he believes the authors erred “…on the side of understating/underestimating the problem.”

There are lots of important takeaway messages from the report, so although it makes for stark reading, I urge you to download it yourself. The biggest thing for me was how significant the impact of that ‘extra’ 0.5°C increase could have on life on Earth. Carbon Brief’s interactive, assembled from a subset of IPCC references, gives an excellent overview of the difference between a rise of 1.5°C versus 2°C. Extreme weather, heat-related deaths, crop failures, and water shortages are amongst the realities facing us in this warming world. And with the US set to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the barriers ahead look evermore insurmountable.

So, is it time to abandon all hope, and watch the world burn?

No. No, it isn’t.

It’s absolutely true that reaching these goals will take “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” but there are many things that we, the average city-dweller, can do to help mitigate the damage from climate change. Some are more extreme than others, and while you may not be able to adopt them all, every individual effort can make a dent in this global challenge. As legendary folk singer Pete Seeger once said, “If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.” So, here are just a few actions you can take, starting with one that doesn’t cost a penny.

1. Campaign / Lobby / Vote

At all levels of governance – in district, state or national elections – get out there and ask questions of your representatives. Find out where they stand on issues of climate change, sustainability, urban investment, access to services, etc., and make your voices heard on polling day. Speak to your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues about their understanding of the challenges ahead, and support them to make useful changes to their lifestyles.

Money talks too. Ensure any investments made by you, your bank, workplace, pension fund, or even your city – do not benefit fossil fuel companies. Divestment might have started off as a fringe activity, but it is gaining traction – New York announced its intention to divest pension funds from fossil fuel in January, and in July, Ireland (my home) became the first nation in the world to make the same commitment.

To have the biggest impact, we must work together; collective action is key, especially on anything to do with climate change. So, find – or start – a community group with common goals and ambitions. Encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to get involved – the most effective group is one that reflects the make-up of your neighbourhood. Tell your city officials what you need – if they don’t offer enough public transport or bicycle lanes for you to consider getting out of your car, ask why not. Do you live in a sunny city that doesn’t have a district-level solar farm? Why not? By building strong communities, you can encourage your city officials to be brave and bold, and to see the long-term benefits of investing in this infrastructure. Some cities already offer free public transport. Could yours be next on the list?

2. Change your commute

Transport is one sector that is particularly ripe for decarbonisation, and is arguably one where city-dwellers could have the biggest impact. I’ve previously written about the role that transport plays in urban air pollution, but as the IPCC report shows (page 2-65), it has much wider implications. Transport has seen faster emissions growth in the past 50 years than any other sector, and in 2014, it accounted for almost a quarter of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions.

So while it may not be an option for everyone – especially those who live in rural areas, or in poorly serviced towns and cities – the biggest change we could make is to use our cars less. Vehicle improvements (e.g. more efficient engines) help, but on the longer term, we need far fewer cars on the road. For the environment, the gains are significant – in 2017, researchers from Lund University calculated that a person living an entirely car-free life saves the equivalent of 2.65 tons of CO2 per year.

If you can’t get rid of your car entirely, and if you can afford it, consider changing to a hybrid vehicle or a fully-electric one. But – and this is a biggie – you also need to consider the electricity grid that you’ll plug your car into. If it’s powered by renewables, then great, but if the energy mix in your city is fossil-fuel-heavy, your shiny new car might not be as climate-friendly as you think.

Mass transit modes – be that rail, bus, tram, or metro – are typically much better for the environment than sole-occupancy vehicles. These systems not only reduce congestion, but with so many cities investing in greener fuels or electrification, they also have a marked impact on an individual’s carbon footprint. This article from National Geographic shows that in terms of both fuel consumption and CO2, buses and trains both outperform the average SUV, when travelling between New York and Toronto.

For local journeys, moving more towards active transport – e.g. cycling or walking – is a no-brainer, thanks to the associated health benefits. It also has a measurable impact on the local environment, and over an extended period of time, the climate too. Research from 2015 found that if cycling rates rose from their current global level – where 6% of miles traveled in world cities are by bike – to around 14% by 2050, urban CO2 emissions from transport would drop by 11%. We’d also see similar benefits from walking.

3. Build better

The way we design our cities and build our homes leaves a lot to be desired, climate-wise. Concrete production accounts for 5% of the world’s CO2 emissions, while asphalt readily absorbs heat, warming cities and putting pressure on our cooling systems. Poorly-planned city ‘texture’ and road layout further amplifies the heat island effect.

So, we really need to rethink city buildings – invest in better windows, revisit passive cooling systems, and insulate our walls, floors and roofs. We also need to put pressure on developers to be smarter with the materials they choose to use in construction projects. Related to this is the importance of green infrastructure – because of transpiration, trees and parks actively cool cities, reducing their energy footprint. As I wrote about recently, it’s not just about getting your city council to create large-scale parks. Networks of small urban green spaces – e.g. vegetable patches, gardens and green roofs – have been shown to be more effective at reducing a city’s temperature than a singular park of the equivalent size. So, if you have access to any outdoor space, plant some native fauna, and encourage others to do the same.

4. Take control of your power

This is by no means a new idea, but one easy way to reduce your energy usage is to switch stuff off when it’s not in use. If you work in an office block, lobby the building owners or managing company to change lightbulbs and to replace energy-hungry appliances. At school, work, and at home, call out wasteful practices, such as leaving doors open when the heating is on, or not switching off lights at the end of the day. Decrease the temperature on your washing machine – EnergyStar suggest that water heating accounts for almost all of the energy used by your appliance. These changes have been shown to have only a low to moderate impact on climate change, but every little helps.

Many cities offer subsidies or incentives to those who wish to install solar panels on their homes or businesses. It can be an excellent option for properties in suitable locations, but it can still come with a high install cost. Do your research – tools such as PVWatts from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory can really help. And if installing your own solar generator is out of reach, try to find energy companies that provide electricity generated from renewable sources.

5. Redefine waste

I have written about waste quite a lot in this column, but that’s only because there’s so much of it around. The first thing we need to do is get over this idea that there is a magical place called ‘away’ to which we send our waste. Everything we discard ends up somewhere, so when making a purchase, think about the waste that it will generate. Do your apples need to be packaged in plastic and cardboard, or is there an option to buy them loose? Do you need another white t-shirt? Does the supermarket or clothing store offer centralised recycling collections? If not, ask why not. Recent months have proven that consumer pressure can change the behaviour and buying patterns of even the largest companies. And in your home, the five ‘R’s’ approach – reduce, refuse, repair, reuse, and recycle – is a good place to start.

As I talked about in my book, in most developed cities, we wash our clothes in water that’s clean enough to drink, so we need to get smarter on how we use it. If you have a garden, or even a window box, collect rainwater and use that for irrigation. Store used cooking fat until you can dispose of it correctly. Throwing it down the sink can lead to fatbergs – they contaminate our water supply, putting pressure on systems that are already stretched.

6. Change your eating habits

Food production and farming are often seen as activities that are carried out ‘in harmony with nature’. But the reality is that feeding 7.6 billion people a modern diet is a hugely costly endeavor – one that causes habitat loss, depletes water resources, and produces greenhouse gases that directly contribute to climate change.

This is especially true for animal products, as a study, published in the journal Science earlier this year, showed. Their huge dataset, assembled from 38,700 farms in 119 countries, and covering 40 food products, estimate that 83% of all farmland is used for “meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy”, and that this accounts for up to 58% of agriculture’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this significant impact, these farms produce just 18% of the world’s food calories, making it incredibly inefficient. Beef came out particularly badly from the study, with one of the scientists telling the Guardian, “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions.” So, one thing that we could all do to reduce the environmental impact of our food is to cut down our consumption of animal products.

Eating locally-grown food, and prioritizing produce that’s in season also helps, by reducing ‘food miles’. And if you have outdoor space, consider grow vegetables and herbs, and where possible, compost your food.

I hope this has given you some ideas of what you can do as individuals. As I see it, we still have a chance to minimize the damage we’ve caused to our planet, and to reduce our impact from here on in. I also (perhaps foolishly) believe that we have what it takes to create a more sustainable world – one that thinks about, plans around, and acts on, the realities of climate change, rather than denying its existence. It will take an enormous global effort, unprecedented changes to the way we live, and as IPCC co-chair Jim Skea told the Guardian, “…the final tickbox is political will,” but it is possible.

Don’t give up. The Earth needs you.

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This story was written for Forbes, and appeared on my column on 19th October 2018. I wrote it because I – like many others – despaired after reading SR15. Thinking about the changes I could make to my life refocused my energies, so I thought it might help others too. If you have any suggestions to add, please comment below!

Featured image on this post comes courtesy of NASA and Wikipedia. Images on the Forbes article are licensed by Forbes Media.