Prioritize Your Environmental Impact: A Guide You’ve Never Seen Before

Since the global warming scare first arose, the terms “go green” and “carbon footprint” have been thrown around so abundantly that they now are bland and empty, lacking the fiery inspiration they were coined with. There exists countless steps an individual can take to reduce his/her footprint, some of which may seem tedious or trivial and unappealing. The environmental message to change one’s lifestyle and “go green” has fallen into a mundane repetition, losing effectiveness and progress.

What’s confusing about these guides is that there are so many of them, and so many demands for lifestyle change that one is sure to feel overwhelmed. We are told so many things: throwing away apple cores wastes 30% of perfectly edible apple, so we should start eating the entirety of our apples to reduce waste in landfills. Yet surely we aren’t expected to do all of these things? How are we to know which steps have the greatest impact and therefore the greatest priority in our attempted transitions to leading greener lives?

This is what I’m here for—to clear up misconceptions about which steps we should prioritize to maximize our individual efforts to help preserve our world. This guide will highlight the most effective ways a person can help reduce his/her own personal impact on the environment.

Here are five main things to focus on:

(1) Food

A topic we are all affected—and excited—by. Surprisingly enough, changing your diet is considered the most effective step an individual can take to reduce his/her carbon footprint.

According to studies by the United Nations, farmed animals globally contribute more to climate change than all of the transportation sector. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the UN announced that 18% of all emissions come from livestock, which is 4990% more than all methods of transport combined. Therefore, an omnivore contributes 7 times the greenhouse gases than a vegan. (Eating Animals, Foer)

Is it necessary to become entirely vegan to be environmentally-friendly? To many, the word “vegan” is an immediate turn-off, likely associated with extremist animal rights advocates, etc., yet decreasing your personal environmental impact need not be so “extreme” or seemingly difficult. If it were easy to be vegan, we would see a lot more vegans—one often finds that only those who learn enough about where food truly comes from are the ones who find it hard to eat conventionally, and therefore the ones who become vegan.

Here are a few simple solutions:

Decrease your consumption of meat. This goal is easy to say, but not necessarily so easy to carry out. A definite way of ensuring your goal is met is by designating meatless days. Meatless Mondays is a fantastic first step to cutting these GHG emissions out of your diet. Often people find that after avoiding meat and dairy products for a few days, they feel more energetic and productive. You can start with Mondays, and then aim to eventually increase the amount of days per week in which you stay away from animal products.

If you must, then choose products with less emissions. The action of eating meat has a lot more weight than consuming dairy products, and so cutting meat out of one’s diet is the most impactful action. But if avoiding meat entirely is an intimidating commitment, you can select which types of meat you would prefer to consume.

• Buy and eat local products! Our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches us (according to Just think of the vastness of transportation emissions due to the inefficiency of this system, and how eating local can reduce those emissions.

• Beef is the most emission-intensive meat. Cattle emit methane, which has about 21% the global warming potential than CO2.

• Eating chicken instead of beef cuts a quarter of emissions. However, there are many ethical objections that are raised when it comes eating chicken, due to the living conditions of factory farmed poultry. One can hardly put any trust in certifications such as “cage-free” and “free-range”, for these are very loosely defined and abided by—just something to consider. (Access to the outdoors can be interpreted as a tiny inaccessible window in an overwhelmingly crowded room of chickens.)

• As for seafood, the most wasteful and unsustainable livestock industry, GHG emissions are still considerably less than beef. However, 98% of what is caught/killed when harvesting shrimp is thrown overboard as bycatch/waste, including an enormously broad diversity of species, many of which are endangered. The abundance of present day unsustainable fishing practices leave worries instilled in many that there will soon be no more fish in the sea to catch.

If you are worried about malnutrition or health issues from this change in diet, never fear! Here are some fun websites full of delicious recipes and nutrition information:

Food is an extremely tangible and impactful issue and solution. It directly affects us, and through it we can directly affect the world.

(2) Transportation

Our struggles to detach from fossil fuel reliance can be pointed to two main reasons—city sprawl and the incorporation of driving into daily lives, and the difficulty of implementing renewable energy alternatives. Although it may seem impossible to completely drop use of cars, it is more feasible to decrease it significantly. If you live in a place where you can walk to the grocery store, then walk to the grocery store. If you live in a place where you can bike to the grocery store, then bike to the grocery store. Let’s raise a generation of youngsters who do not aspire to own sports cars, but who aspire to be completely independent of cars, and who value being capable of traveling via manpower.

Extremely effective measures include divesting from fossil fuels and pushing for legislative action that will reduce emissions. There exists controversy amongst environmentalists over the issue of hydraulic fracturing, due to its ability to extract natural gas that emits a lot less than petroleum vs. massive consumption of water and other consequences. Political action and investment are both powerful tools that an individual can utilize to assist a cause.

Another solution to the problem is to just rely less on cars. Relax and have fun while you run errands by biking, skating, longboarding, scootering, etc. Use public transport over a car wherever possible. Try to choose buses and trains over airlines.

Walking has many benefits, including no emissions!

Walking has many benefits, including no emissions!

Public transit saves an estimated 14 million tons of CO2 a year by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Click Here! for a fun animation that describes the power of buses to reduce traffic more effectively than words can.

Various cities are built with different infrastructure for these methods of transport, and some are better than others. Here is where the quote “do what you can, with what you have, where you are” works nicely. It is clear that redesigning cities to be walkable, so that the convenience of walking is greater than the convenience of driving, is what will curb reliance on cars for transportation. As individuals, we can push for greater solutions like these, and actively contribute ideas for solutions to our local communities.

If you must drive, you can reduce your emissions and usage of fossil fuels by accelerating and breaking smoothly. Furthermore, keeping your car well-maintained will increase the car’s efficiency.

When we rely on cars as our main medium of transport, we lose the experience of physically appreciating place and space. Cars completely alter our perceptions of distance, while walking allows us to feel the air, and to feel alive. One can realize a much greater appreciation for daily life by taking the time to walk.

(3&4) Energy and Water

Energy and water are huge. I lumped them together because heating up water is extremely energy-intensive. They are also both related to all the other categories in this article.

Depending on how one looks at it, energy is the largest contributor to GHG emissions, since it fuels the other contributors to emissions. In the U.S., most energy comes from burning coal, which is the dirtiest (most emission-heavy) and the least efficient fossil fuel. Because energy use is so deeply imbedded in our infrastructure and culture, it seems daunting for an individual to make a significant impact. There are lists of small things a person can do to save energy, and here I will list the most important steps to remember:

1) Take shorter showers—heating up water is a huge consumer of energy. Conserve running water and use it purposefully.

2) Make the effort to unplug things. You can attach most of your appliances to a power strip and then unplug the power strip when you leave the room.

3) Turn the air conditioning to a higher temperature and the heater to a lower temperature, and dress accordingly in your house. Wearing sweaters in the house will keep you warm and cozy in the winter, and save your electric bill, as well as your personal footprint.

However, it is clear that what we need to focus on here is solutions. Investing in alternative energy sources and more efficient technology is where the real difference can be made. Although currently many alternative solutions are not economical, showing support for them or participating in discussions about them will contribute to development of these solutions.

(5) Consumerism

The power of the consumer is arguably as powerful, if not more powerful, than that of the politician (although politicians are easier to blame). As my professor once said, “efficiency is in the power of the consumer.” Consumer demand shapes the flow of products, and holds crucial potential for demanding change. If we as consumers can keep sustainability in mind when we make decisions about purchases, then we can have a profound impact on the environment. Demand sustainable products, but also purchase less, and avoid as much as you can buying disposable products.

In the U.S. alone, industry is the second largest emitter of GHG’s. Although industry seems formidable to tackle, you can direct support from certain industries through your consumerism—avoid products from the most energy-intensive industries, or at least be aware of which industries are harshest on the environment. Below is a visual that demonstrates the most emission-intensive industries.

Figure taken from EPA's report "Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Key Industrial Sectors in the United States"

Figure taken from EPA’s report “Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Key Industrial Sectors in the United States”

In Conclusion:

This article is not to discourage the smaller steps that one can take to greener living. Any small thing done by an increasing number of people can have a profound impact, and seemingly insignificant daily decisions that we make are often the most impactful.

However, we need to be doing these small steps and more. It is easy to slip into a false sense of comfort that because we are taking small steps to “reduce their footprint”, we can ignore the more pressing issues.

Also keep in mind that focusing on large-scale efforts that will effect more people, such as regulations for cleaner cars and implementing alternative energy solutions is indeed more effective than our personal footprints. Given that, a collective change in people’s lifestyles will be enormously effective. It all depends on how far we are willing to venture out of our comfort zones and our usual convenient routines to make a meaningful impact. Hopefully this article helped introduce unique outlooks on which impactful changes to target and guided how to go about those changes.

Eva Malis

Eva is a fourth year Environmental Science student and the Communications Associate for SERC. Her passion lies in conservation biology, climate justice, and environmental communications.

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1 Response

  1. Qusai says:

    Great Article!

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