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By most estimates, we need to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid widespread climate disaster. And researchers in Sweden just named the individual actions that can get us there.
A new study in Environmental Research Letters analyzes hundreds of lifestyle choices by calculating their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While there's plenty of information out there on how the average person can make their life a little greener, this is the first study of its kind to rank environmental actions in terms of effectiveness. Actions are quantified using CO2 equivalents, which measure emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their "global warming potential".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the actions that reign supreme are more sweeping life overhaul than small, everyday tweak. Conserving water, composting, and buying organic food rank relatively low on the list. That's not to say that you should get rid of your recycling bin or leave the lights on whenever you leave the house, but a massive problem calls for equally large action. Here are the top four things you can do to help the planet according to the study, and a few resources to ease you into each should you feel inspired to do so.
#4: Eat a plant-based diet.
Swapping out animal products entirely saved an average of 0.8 tons of CO2 equivalent a year. Even if you're not ready to go vegan just yet, these quick, cheap, veg-heavy meals are great gateways into plant-based living.
#3: Avoid airplane travel.
Avoiding airplane travel, especially overseas flights, has the potential to save some major CO2: 1.6 tons per roundtrip transatlantic flight, to be exact. If you can't avoid a long flight, consider flying direct, purchasing carbon offsets with sites like TripZero, or booking with airlines that are making the switch over to biofuels.
#2: Live car free.
Swapping your car for a bike saves 2.4 tons of CO2 equivalents a year. And trading in your four wheels for two comes with an added benefit: Cycling reduces your risk of early death by 40 percent and new research finds it may make you a happier, more productive person.
#1: Have fewer kids.
Yep, having one fewer child is the quickest way to ensure you're cutting down on your annual carbon emissions. In developed countries, the decision to do so saves an average of 58.6 tons of CO2 equivalents per year. Of course, you'll find people on both sides of the camp on this one: While writer and environmentalist Alden Wicker sited concerns like bringing children into a volatile world and desire to save money to implement climate reform as her reasoning for not having kids in an impassioned essay for mbg, others argue that you can still be a climate activist even if you have a large family. At the end of the day, it's a personal decision, and one that not everyone has the privilege of making for themselves.