Personal Actions Matter: The One Billion Ton Opportunity


I’d like to introduce Matt Eisenson, a new Fellow here at NRDC, who has spent the last few months working with experts at NRDC and friends at the Garrison Institute to develop the "Behavioral Wedge," the one billion ton personal action opportunity.  For the next few weeks, he’ll appear as a special guest on this blog to discuss the results of his work:

It’s a new year, a new decade, and a new opportunity for resolutions.  For many, this comes with a desire to make a positive impact on our planet by greening our lifestyles in 2010.  But what, our inner cynic wonders, can we truly accomplish as individuals?

It is very easy to write off personal action as a futile means to fighting an environmental problem as complex as climate change.  Our best intentions too often fold in face of such an enormous challenge.  We may know the factor by which our carbon footprint exceeds that of the average Ethiopian—if you’re wondering, it’s approximately 23—but with 300 million other Americans each making daily lifestyle choices, the impact our personal behavior can appear too small to warrant the effort to change.

Besides, behavioral change sounds onerous.  The personal costs seem high, and the environmental benefits nearly imperceptible—if not entirely negated by the free riders unwilling to submit to the same sacrifices.  Why forego your favorite steak-and-cheese for the “veggie delight” when you know that a big shot’s private Gulfstream G550 emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) per hour than you’d likely save by going vegan for a whole year?

The hourly emissions of a G550: (400 gallons/hr) * (20 lbs CO2/gallon) = 8000 lbs/hour


The yearly carbon savings of two strict vegans: (3,300 lbs/yr) * (2) = 6,600 lbs/year

Calculations based on:  Jacob Leibenluft, “Six Thousand Gallons of Regular, Please,” Slate (April 28, 2008), and Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, Diet, Energy and Global Warming, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10 No. 9 (2006). 

Large, powerful nations are likewise susceptible to the same defeatist mode of thinking—why take action to curb domestic emissions if other countries continue to pollute unabated?  We saw this phenomenon clearly on display at the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen.  Carbon leakage (a transnational free rider problem of sorts) and carbon equity (a point of contention between developed and developing countries over historic responsibilities and the implementation of per capita, rather than countrywide, emissions caps) remain major stumbling blocks to achieving a meaningful and binding global climate agreement.

Just as the U.S. should not wait to capitalize on energy efficiency opportunities and other “low hanging fruit” to reduce its national emissions, so we individual Americans should not disregard those simple—and cheap!—personal actions which, while small on their own, have the potential for an immense impact in the aggregate. 

Pacala and Socolow’s “stabilization wedges” model for economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions (in their analysis, each wedge represents a measure that, scaled up over 50 years, will yield a one billion ton reduction in GHG emissions below the business-as-usual projection), inspired us to investigate whether there existed a “behavioral” wedge: one billion tons-worth of emissions reductions achievable through simple, zero- to- low-cost personal actions and changes in behavior.

The goal is ambitious.  This is an exercise, however, not of probability, but of possibility.  We do not presume to estimate the likelihood of adoption for each of the actions we propose; rather, we aim to illustrate the potential impacts of total participation and encourage collective action.  We aim to show that if Americans carry out simple and affordable personal actions and achieve  modest behavioral change, it will be sufficient to reduce our nation’s GHG emissions by one billion metric tons of  CO2-equivalent (CO2e) below business-as-usual by 2020.  One billion tons is a full 1/7th of our country’s roughly 7 billion tons of CO2e annual emissions.  It is roughly equivalent to the combined total emissions of the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia combined, and more than the annual emissions of the Western Europe’s biggest polluter, Germany. 

We classified actions and behavioral change in four categories: transportation, household energy consumption, diet, and waste. 

Below is a summary of our results (numbers reported in million metric tons (MMt) CO2e):


A blog series describing the specific actions and our estimates of their impact will follow, so please stay tuned.  In the meantime, if you’d like to reduce your own carbon footprint by implementing some of these ideas and track your progress, join the Simple Steps community by going to “My Simple Steps."

UPDATE: read more about this project on TreeHugger

UPDATE: Table revised 3/18/2010

This project is collaboration between NRDC and the Garrison Institute’s Climate, Mind and Behavior (CMB) Project,  working to integrate emerging research findings about what drives human behavior into new thinking on climate solutions.  It envisions a "behavioral wedge" empowering people to eliminate a gigaton of GHG emissions by simply changing our behavior, starting now, even as we continue to work on other fronts to achieve institutional, regulatory and market changes.  CMB is convening leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields climate change and environmental advocacy, neuro-, behavioral and evolutionary economics, psychology, policy-making, investing and social media, working together on ways to shift behavior on a large enough scale to realize this potential 1 gigaton emissions reduction.