We need to reach net zero emissions by the middle of this century if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. It means we have less than three decades to reverse more than a century of rising emissions and bring annual emissions down to near zero, while actively removing carbon from the atmosphere to balance out all remaining unavoidable emissions.
As individuals, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels to help speed up this process. Most people don't know how to do this effectively. There is a chapter in the latest report by the UN climate change panel IPCC dedicated to all the ways in which people's behaviour can accelerate the transition to net zero.
Based on research conducted by Diana Ivanova at the University of Leeds, this chapter includes an analysis of 60 individual actions that can help combat climate change.
These actions were grouped into three categories: avoiding, shifting, and improving consumption (making it more efficient). Here are some charts created for the IPCC report.
Avoid these to affect Climate Change
Transport is by far the most useful thing to avoid. Living without a car reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 tonnes of CO2 per person per year while avoiding a long-distance return flight reduces emissions by about 1.9 tonnes. It would take a typical Australian car more than 16,000 km to drive from Sydney to Perth and back twice.
Most of the world's population does not fly at all - and of those who do, only a small percentage do so frequently - so those who do not fly can significantly reduce their carbon footprints.
Shift these behaviours
Living sustainably is not just about giving things up. Large reductions in emissions can be achieved by shifting to a different way of doing things. Because driving is so polluting, for example, shifting to public transport, walking or cycling can make an enormous change, with added benefits for your personal health and local air pollution levels.
Because of the high emissions associated with meat and dairy – particularly those produced by farming sheep and cows – shifting towards more sustainable diets can substantially reduce your carbon footprint. A totally vegan diet is the most effective way to do this, but sizeable savings can be made simply by switching from beef and lamb to pork and chicken.
Improve these living choices
Finally, the things we do already could be made more efficient by improving carbon efficiency at home: for example by using insulation and heat pumps, or producing your own renewable energy by installing solar panels.
The most efficient way to drive a car is to switch from a combustion engine to an electric one - ideally, a battery EV, which produces much larger emissions reductions than hybrids or fuel cell cars. Moreover, the amount of electricity generated by renewables will increase in the future, which will increase its effect on emissions.
Every tonne of CO2 counts in the race to net zero. We are more likely to achieve the ambitious climate goals set out in the Paris agreement if more of us take even a few of these suggestions into consideration. Obviously, these changes must be accompanied by major political action on sustainability.
Fossil fuels must either be restricted or made more expensive if we want to use less fossil fuel energy. Carbon pricing schemes must be managed carefully in order to benefit people with lower incomes: for example, if revenues are redistributed to relieve poorer households of the financial burden.
Yet governments can do more to help people live more sustainably, such as providing better, safer public transport and "active travel" infrastructure (such as bike lanes and pedestrian zones) so people have alternatives to driving and flying.
We can't avoid the fact that if political solutions are to address climate change with the urgency our global situation demands, they will limit our ability to indulge in carbon-intensive behaviours. In order to ensure the future of our planet, we must vote into office those who are prepared to make such tough decisions.