The Bartlett


What can we do about climate change?

6 October 2021

Man on bike with London bus

Climate change is a threat to humans and the natural world. It causes impacts such as floods, extreme heat and extreme weather events. Warmer temperatures can contribute to increased diseases, and droughts which disrupt food supply.

Climate change is caused by activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Humans are contributing to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through various activities. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide ( CO2), which largely comes from burning fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas.

In order to stop climate change, the world as a whole has to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and reach zero emissions overall by around 2050.

What does this mean for a country like the UK?

Here is a chart showing where the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from at the moment:

The share of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions from different sources in 2020 pie chart

The share of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions from different sources in 2020. Source: BEIS

As the chart shows, greenhouse gas emissions get released by all kinds of activities. Energy supply – mainly the production of electricity – is one large source. The energy we use in our homes – especially for heating and hot water – is another. Transport is another big source, as vehicles that use petrol or diesel fuels emit  CO2 directly from their exhaust pipes. These three sources make up almost three-quarters of UK greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining emissions come from the activities of business and industry, public buildings, agriculture and land use.

Sources of greenhouse gas emissions. heating, driving and electricity
Almost three-quarters of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from the power stations that make our electricity, the energy we use in our homes, and transport. Picture sources: Martin on Flickr; Pxfuel; Robert Ashby on Geograph.

In our homes, most of the energy we use goes into heating them and producing hot water, with smaller amounts used for powering our appliances, and for lighting and cooking.

The shares of UK home energy use due to different kinds of activity in 2019
The shares of UK home energy use due to different kinds of activity in 2019. Source: Eurostat.

How are we going to cut all of these emissions to zero, and still be able to heat and light our homes, cook food, power our electrical appliances and travel where we need to?

A key part of the puzzle is electricity. Most technologies that produce energy without creating greenhouse gas emissions, produce their energy in the form of electricity. Renewable technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels produce electricity directly; so do nuclear power stations. Because we have been producing more and more of our electricity from these kinds of technologies, we have significantly reduced the greenhouse emissions that come from our production of electricity over the past few decades.

CO2 emissions from UK electricity supply

Wind turbines and solar panels
Renewable technologies like wind and solar have helped to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are caused by our use of electricity. Emissions data from BEIS. Picture sources: David Dixon on Geograph; David Blaikie on Flickr

The UK’s Climate Change Committee has told the government that this trend needs to continue, and that all of the UK’s electricity should be produced without any greenhouse gas emissions, by the year 2035.

Once our electricity is being made without causing any greenhouse gas emissions – that is to say, when it is “zero carbon” – anything we do that uses electricity will automatically become a “zero carbon” activity.

This is why we will probably want to use electricity for more things than we do at the moment. And this could have additional benefits, as well as cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  

For example, at the moment, most vehicles – cars, buses, vans, delivery trucks – use fossil fuels like petrol and diesel, and consequently produce CO2 emissions from their exhaust. They also produce various other emissions that cause problems to people’s health in the local area.

However, if we could change the technologies to electric cars, buses and vans, then we would be able to avoid the local emissions that affect people’s health, and cut greenhouse gas emissions as well.

It could be a similar story with the energy we use in our homes. In many homes gas is used for cooking, heating and for producing hot water. The gas that we use is a fossil fuel that also produces CO2 emissions. If we could replace all our gas cookers and gas heating systems with technologies that run on electricity – such as electric cookers and electric heat pumps – and if our electricity was zero-carbon, then we would be able to do our cooking and heat our homes without producing greenhouse gas emissions.

Whose responsibility is it to make these changes?

At the moment it is mainly individual people and families that are expected to make these choices – for example, choosing to buy an electric car instead of a petrol-fuelled one; or choosing to upgrade their heating system to run from an electric heat pump, rather than from gas. However, in many cases choosing an electric or other low-carbon option is more expensive than a fossil-fuelled option. Is it fair to expect individuals to make these choices?

When the UK first discovered fossil methane gas in the North Sea in the 1960s, the nationally owned gas industry coordinated and funded a campaign employing thousands of engineers to convert the cookers and heating systems in millions of homes across the country, so that they could use the new fuel. They got the work done in a decade, and this gas is now the way most households heat their homes and produce their hot water. Should the Government now take a similar approach to organising the upgrade of every home in the country to a zero-carbon standard; as well as to support people so that they are able to use electric vehicles, and have an easy way of charging them?

But actions could also be taken at local and community scale. Local governments such as city councils are often responsible for the upkeep of some homes, as well as local transport and traffic planning. Local government decisions about investments in buildings, or whether to purchase pollution free buses, have important impacts on residents. At an even more local level, some communities have come together to invest in renewable and low-carbon energy systems, the energy and income from which they then share. Other communities have helped to plan neighbourhood designs that reduce traffic and provide more green spaces, making it easier to walk and cycle.

Who might lose or benefit from these changes?

Not all of the required actions will be easy. Reducing the use of fossil fuels very often means the loss of a job for someone who works with fossil fuels, or on related technologies. If we get rid of petrol and diesel vehicles, what happens to people who drive such vehicles for a living – such as delivery drivers or taxi drivers – or to the mechanics who are trained to service them? The same for the engineers who are trained to work on gas central heating systems – what happens to them if we get rid of such systems?

But there is also a lot of potential for benefits to arise from taking fossil fuels out of the energy system. Some jobs could change, rather than be lost entirely, and there might be new jobs created. Training programmes could be established to support people to take up the new jobs that would emerge in a greener economy. Oil and gas workers could acquire the different skills needed to work on offshore wind farms, and gas fitters learn how to install heat pumps. Small businesses could be supported to upgrade their vehicle fleets, and mechanics and engineers could be retrained to service such vehicles.

There could also be direct health benefits. As well as producing CO2 emissions that cause climate change, cars, buses and other vehicles also produce other kinds of pollutants that directly affect our health by causing diseases that harm our lungs and breathing. By decarbonising our roads, we would also improve our health. By decarbonising our homes, we could make them more efficient and comfortable to live in. By changing the design of our neighbourhoods we could make them safer, more pleasant to walk around, easier to socialise in and more enjoyable places to spend time.

Climate action at every level

It is sometimes hard for us to see how we can make these kinds of changes happen. Progress at national and international levels can seem painfully slow; whilst anything that we can do at a local or individual level can seem far too small to make a difference.

Viewing these two poles as isolated, but equally unsatisfactory alternatives, can lead us into a trap of pessimism from which it is hard to escape. But a more accurate description would be to say that our individual and local actions have a reciprocal relationship with the positions expressed in our national politics. We are all part of society, and the actions that we take in our lives are not separate from the positions taken in political life – on the contrary, they are informative and constitutive of these positions. Actions of individuals can contribute to changing the political context, which in turn can make further action easier.

Seen in this way, any action, whether taken at local, regional or national level, becomes part of a connected process which is gathering momentum.

Responding to climate change requires action at every level. The choices that individuals and local communities make are of considerable importance in their own right, and can have real impacts; but they also have a crucial role in galvanising action at other levels; which can in turn further contribute to momentum that makes greater change even more likely.

The graph below shows results of a literature review of the impacts of different low-carbon choices that individuals can make. It shows the top ten choices, according to this review, ordered by their average (median) effectiveness. This particular list and its ordering should not be taken as absolute – the relative effectiveness of different choices will of course depend on the individual concerned. For example, the impact of switching to a 100% vegan diet will be much greater for someone who had previously had very high meat and dairy consumption, than for someone whose diet was already relatively low in such products. Nonetheless, the list is a useful indicator of the kinds of decisions it may be within the power of individuals to make. Furthermore, when it is recalled that the average greenhouse gas emissions per person in the UK works out at around 7.3 tonnes CO2e per person per year, it is clear that the quantity of reduced emissions of any of these measures could be significant in relation to a typical individual’s carbon footprint.

Potential impacts of personal choices  - greenhouse gas emissions
Ranges of greenhouse gas reduction potential of measures which could be taken by individuals. Top ten measures arranged by average (median) reduction potential, as found by a literature review carried out by Ivanova et al. (2020). The bars show the “interquartile range” (the middle 50% of results). The black vertical lines within the bars indicate the location of the median value.

Using this list as a guide, we can consider different actions that an individual might take. Switching to renewable electricity has a significant effect, and is a key part of the overall transition outlined above. The easiest way in which we can ensure our electricity is zero-carbon is by switching to a “green tariff.” Not all self-styled green tariffs are equally green – but there are useful sources of independent advice that explain what to look out for.

The figure also shows our decisions about personal transport can be significant. In particular, moving away from private car use by walking, cycling, using public transport, or combinations of these – in many cases such choices will also bring health benefits. Joining a car club enables us to maintain access to a car when needed, and some now have electric vehicles in their fleets. If a private car or other vehicle is a necessity, we could consider making our next vehicle an electric one – the cost of electric vehicles is getting closer to that of conventional models, and electric vehicles are cheaper to run. If our work requires us to travel, we could encourage our employers to invest in online video conferencing tools – reducing our carbon footprint, but likely also increasing our wellbeing and productivity.

Reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products may also have a large effect on reducing our carbon footprint, and may also have health benefits.

Those who own their own homes could explore how insulation could increase their home’s efficiency and reduce bills in the long run; and consider replacing gas boilers with air source heat pumps, to heat their homes efficiently using electricity, rather than gas.

As well as individual choices, some actions can also be taken in collaborations within our local communities. Acting collectively, local communities have jointly invested in their own renewable energy systems, set up sharing projects that reduce demand for materials and products, and created green spaces.

We can also push the organisations and institutions which we support and participate in to act – faith-based organisations and football clubs are now amongst the people-led groups publicly declaring climate action.

Of course, individuals and communities can’t do it on their own. The more these kinds of choices can be supported by clear policies, actions and strategies at the local, regional, national and international political levels, the easier it is for us to act. For example, financial support and clear infrastructure policies make it much more possible for individuals and communities to invest in energy efficiency, zero-carbon heating systems and electric vehicles; training programmes would help people to acquire the necessary skills to carry out the new green jobs that such new technologies and systems would demand; and long-term investment in sustainable public transport and spatial planning is necessary to make reducing car use a realistic possibility for many.

But as individuals we can also contribute to the momentum required to bring about these political changes, by being political citizens in the broadest sense. This could include taking the time to respond to a consultation on a local low traffic neighbourhood scheme; engaging with our local council on its fossil fuel strategies; or writing to our MPs, either on a specific issue, such as planned new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, or simply to pledge our support for the UK reaching net zero as soon as possible. And when the next local or national election comes, we can question and hold to account politicians for their actions on climate, and scrutinise their manifesto pledges.

Such acts of engagement, in addition to all of the low-carbon choices we can make within our own lives, make important and meaningful contributions to the momentum needed to bring about crucial commitments on the national and international stages. The more that national level politicians are aware that citizens not only demand changes but indeed are at the vanguard of climate action, the more emboldened they will be to propose transformative national strategies. These changes in turn support further changes at the individual level, creating ever greater momentum, as we move forward together on climate action.

Further reading