Climate Change 101: The Most Impactful Sustainable Solutions

If you’ve been following along in our Climate Change 101 series, so far you’ve either had a crash intro course or a refresher course on:

  • What climate change is and why it’s a big deal (Unit 1)
  • The specific causes of climate change and how that will affect us and our planet (Unit 2)

Now that you’re clear on what the problems are, it’s finally time to dig into some solutions. Despite the very dire predicament in which we find ourselves, there are very practical, achievable actions we can take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, slow the rate at which our planet is warming, and mitigate the dangerous consequences of climate change. We’ve gathered the top suggestions from Project Drawdown’s comprehensive research on the most impactful climate solutions, including those that are relevant to us as individuals as well as those that we can urge policymakers and industry to address.

Top Solutions at a Glance

What Individuals Can Do: 

  1. Encourage lawmakers to ratify the Kigali Amendment. (Update: The Senate ratified the Kigali Amendment on Sep. 21, 2022!!! Woohoo!)
  2. Minimize consumption of new electronics.
  3. Avoid aerosol sprays.
  4. Use and support clean energy over fossil fuels.
  5. Throw away less food.
  6. Eat a plant-heavy diet.
  7. Educate girls.
  8. Drive an electric car.
  9. Switch to LED lightbulbs.
  10. Fly less.
  11. Use water more efficiently.
  12. Minimize overall consumption of unnecessary products that generate emissions and end up in the waste stream.
  13. Increase household recycling.
  14. Use smart thermostats.
  15. Compost your organic waste.

What Industry Can Do:

  1. Clean up the chemicals in refrigerators and air conditioners.
  2. Install onshore wind turbines.
  3. Minimize food waste in the supply chain.
  4. Produce plant-based consumer products, including food and beverages, personal care, and apparel.
  5. Protect and restore tropical forests.
  6. Build solar farms.
  7. Make electric vehicles and charging infrastructure more accessible.
  8. Ship goods more efficiently.
  9. Switch to LED lightbulbs.
  10. Plant more bamboo.
  11. Build with “greener” cement compounds.
  12. Minimize emissions from the airline industry.
  13. Use water more efficiently.
  14. Minimize waste and increase recycling and composting in the waste stream.
  15. Install green roofs.

What Policymakers Can Do:

  1. Clean up the chemicals in refrigerators and air conditioners, and ratify the Kigali Amendment. (See above update: The Kigali Amendment was ratified by the US!)
  2. Invest in clean energy sources including wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro power.
  3. Avoid agricultural subsidies that encourage food waste and overconsumption of meat.
  4. Protect, restore, and expand tropical rainforest and other wild lands. 
  5. Increase access to family planning.
  6. Educate girls by making school more affordable, reducing the time and distance to get to school, and making schools more girl-friendly.
  7. Return land to indigenous people.
  8. Add environmental regulations to minimize emissions from air travel.
  9. Preserve coastal wetlands.
  10. Design more walkable cities.
  11. Invest in better recycling and composting infrastructure.
  12. Invest in high-speed trains and other public transportation.

Breakdown of Top 6 Solutions

1. Clean up the chemicals in refrigerators and air conditioners → 57.75 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED/SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

Problem: In Part 2 of our Climate Change 101 series, we broke down the different greenhouse gases and how each of them contribute to climate change. We learned that Fluorinated Gases make up 3% of total greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that exist solely due to human activity. The primary contributors to those Fluorinated Gases are the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used for cooling in refrigerators and air conditioners. A smaller percentage comes from industrial processes, including the manufacturing of aluminum and semiconductors, largely for use in electronics. HFCs were actually introduced after the 1987 Montreal Protocol that aimed to phase out the CFCs and HCFCs that had been damaging the ozone layer. While HFCs spare the ozone layer, they’re also 1,000-9,000 times more potent at warming the environment than carbon.

Solution: In October 2016, 170 countries got together to amend the Montreal Protocol with the Kigali Amendment, which would be an agreement to phase out HFCs. It has been ratified by over 100 countries, including the European Union representing one block, but has not yet been ratified. (Edit: The Kigali Amendment was finally ratified by the US Senate in September 2022!)

What You Can Do: 

  • Learn more about the benefits of the Kigali Amendment here
  • Contact your senator or representative to share your opinion on this subject and urge them to action. 
  • Minimize consumption of new electronics and other products made with virgin aluminum, magnesium, and semiconductors.
  • Swap aerosol sprays like air fresheners, hair sprays, cooking sprays, sunscreens, deodorants, and others for versions that come in solid form or liquid with a pump spritz instead.

2. Install onshore wind turbines → 47.21–147.72 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED/SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

Problem: The burning of fossil fuels, which is how we currently get the vast majority of our energy for transportation, electricity, and industry, is the single largest source of carbon emissions and driver of global climate change. Replacing fossil fuels with clean, emission-free energy sourced from onshore wind turbines on a utility scale would be a total game changer. 

Solution: Around the world, onshore wind turbines currently account for only 4.4% of energy production. Increasing that amount to 19.6-26.9% by 2050 could reduce carbon emissions by 46.21-147.72 gigatons. That means adopting wind energy on a utility scale. The great news is that wind is also a cheaper source of energy than coal-generated electricity and it’s getting increasingly more cost-effective. At their current prices, while the initial implementation costs would be around $843-1,659 billion, the total lifetime savings would be $3.9-10.1 trillion. Another benefit of onshore wind farms is that they take up only 1% of the land they sit on, which means that same land can also be simultaneously used for other purposes including grazing, farming, recreation, or conservation. 

What about other clean energy sources? Solar, offshore wind, geothermal, nuclear, and hydro power also play critical roles in helping us replace fossil fuels and rank high as some of the most impactful climate solutions.

What You Can Do: 

  • See if you can construct a small wind project on your land to supplement your energy for your home or business.
  • Got some land? Host wind power for a utility or commercial project.
  • Opt in if your utility has a green pricing option to get some or all of your energy from renewable energy. (Here’s a link to sign up for PGE’s Green Source program if you live in the Portland, OR area.)
  • Purchase Renewable Energy Certificates/Credits.
  • Vote for legislation and public officials that support the expansion of wind and other renewable energy sources.
  • Conserve energy in your home.
  • Support companies that use wind and other renewable energy sources. (We carry several products from vendors who use wind, including Tek Brushes.)

3. Reduce food waste → 87.45–94.56 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED/SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

Problem: A third of all food grown or raised in the world is never eaten. “Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in the global rubbish bin. The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions,” according to Project Drawdown. Every factor is problematic. Trees that could be capturing carbon cut down for land for cattle to graze. Fossil fuels burned to process food. Water wasted. And we know from Part 2 that the methane released into the atmosphere when food rots in landfills is 25 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon.

“In places where income is low, wastage is generally unintentional and occurs earlier in the supply chain—food rots on farms or spoils during storage or distribution. In regions of higher income, willful food waste dominates farther along the supply chain. Retailers and consumers reject food based on bumps, bruises, and coloring, or simply order, buy, and serve too much.” -Project Drawdown

Solution: The solutions for this problem are as varied as the sources. “In lower-income countries, improving infrastructure for storage, processing, and transportation is essential. In higher-income regions, major interventions are needed at the retail and consumer levels. National food-waste targets and policies can encourage widespread change. Beyond addressing emissions, these efforts can also help to meet future food demand.” -Project Drawdown

What You Can Do:

  • Focus on reducing food waste at home! Read our post on How to Prevent Food Waste in your home, including planning your grocery trips and meals better and proper food storage to avoid food spoiling before you can eat it.
  • Break the bad habits of ordering more than you can eat and/or leaving food on your plate unless you plan to eat the leftovers.
  • Donate or volunteer with national and local organizations like Feeding America that rescue food that would otherwise be wasted and help get it into the hands of those who are food insecure.
  • Learn about sustainable food systems and advocate for agricultural policies that can make a difference.
  • Are you an engineer, scientist, or entrepreneur? Develop solutions to food waste both at home and abroad. You can even apply for relevant grants to help you do so.


4. Eat more plants and less meat → 65.01–91.72 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED / SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

    Problem: If cattle were their own country, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s for a variety of factors, including that it takes a lot of water, food, and energy used to feed and care for cattle, the deforestation that often occurs to clear land for grazing, the methane produced by cattle burps, and the nitrous oxide associated with fertilizers and manure. A meat-centric diet accounts for ⅕ of total global emissions. It pains us to say it, but HOLY COW!

    Solution: While the food we eat is a subject that is particularly sensitive because it has deep social and cultural ties, it’s also an especially empowering issue for us as individual consumers because our individual demand has a direct effect on how much supply is required and thus the resulting emissions. According to a 2016 study published in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, our emissions could be reduced by 70% by adopting a vegan diet and 63% with a vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs. We would also save $1 billion in annual health-care costs due to the adverse health effects associated with overconsumption of meat.

    What You Can Do:

    • Read our blog post “A Case for Eating Less Meat” to learn more about the impacts of reducing animal consumption.
    • Eat less meat and animal products, including dairy. Start by assessing how much you eat on a regular basis, maybe even consider keeping a log for the next week. Based on that, choose some ways to cut back that work for you and your family. You can do so adopting a Flexitarian diet that seeks to minimize meat and animal products or commit to going fully vegetarian or vegan. Here are some ideas for everything in between:
      • If you eat meat with every meal, consider skipping it at least one meal a day or one day a week. 
      • Consider being vegan or vegetarian every day before 6pm or dinnertime.
      • Do it on a case by case basis: if there are certain foods that bring you extra joy that you can’t imagine giving up, keep those and skip the others that don’t do as much for you. For example, maybe you can still indulge in your mom’s famous chicken pot pie, al pastor tacos from your favorite food truck, or Thanksgiving turkey, but choose oat milk instead of cow milk in your coffee and swap mushrooms for the ground beef in your bolognese.
      • Prioritize avoiding the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including beef and lamb and opting for chicken, turkey, pork, or fish instead.
    • Learn to eat and make more plant-based meals. If you’re looking for inspiration, some of our favorite chefs and recipe-makers include Maya’s Healthy Day, Zero Waste Chef, and Minimalist Baker.
    • If you do eat meat, choose locally, sustainably, and humanely raised options to minimize the associated carbon emissions. Look for Global Animal Partnership and Certified Humane labels.

    5. Restore our tropical forests → 54.45–85.14 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED / SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

    Problem: Tropical forests once covered 12% of the earth’s landmass and now covers only 5% after decades of clearing, degradation, fragmentation, and depletion of biodiversity. We know, of course, that this is harmful to the many species of wildlife that depend on these vibrant ecosystems, but it also plays a critical role in capturing the excess carbon in our atmosphere.

    Solution: If 161-231 million hectares of forest could be restored by protecting degraded land and allowing natural regrowth to occur, 1.4 tons of carbon dioxide per acre could be sequestered annually. This would involve releasing land currently used for non-forest use like farming or damming a valley and letting it naturally regrow and/or actively cultivating seedlings and removing invasive species to speed up restoration.

    What You Can Do: 

    • Donate to, and volunteer with, organizations that are working to restore tropical forests like Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, and Rainforest Trust.
    • Eliminate beef, palm oil, and soybeans, which are the primary drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, from your diet or buy local and sustainably sourced instead.
    • Support local conservation projects and the expansion of parks and green spaces in your community.
    • Sign up with Plant Your Change or other organization to donate your change from every transaction toward planting trees.
    • Support brands that use FSC-certified wood and paper. (We carry products from vendors who use FSC-certified wood, bamboo, and paper, including Tek Brushes, Ekobo, and ECOBAGS, respectively.)
    • Learn which companies are taking responsibility and positive action to minimize their contribution to deforestation via the Forest 500. Divest and avoid spending money with the laggards.
    • Support indigenous communities by buying fair trade products through marketplaces like Ten Thousand Villages.

    6. Educate girls and increase access to family planning → 85.42 GIGATONS CO2 EQUIVALENT REDUCED / SEQUESTERED (2020–2050)

      Problem: As of today, social, cultural, and economic conditions prevent 62 million girls from pursuing their education. If conditions for women and girls remain the same, not only will the health conditions and quality of life for women and children continue to suffer, the world’s population could increase to an extra 1 billion people above the United Nations’ projected target of 9.7 billion humans by 2050. This drastic increase in human population would cause an undue strain on natural resources and contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions through the added use of energy, building space, food, waste, and transportation.

      12-13 years of education lays an important foundation for girls and families to flourish. Women with higher education tend to have fewer and healthier children. They also contribute to stronger economic growth through increased upward mobility and wages. Education also enables women to be better stewards of the earth and more resilient toward the effects of climate change. Access to voluntary, high-quality family planning gives women control over their reproductive health, improves the well-being and life expectancy for themselves and their children, and gives them the option to grow their families when they feel most comfortable doing so.

      Solutions: Educating girls and providing access to safe and voluntary family planning are some of the most powerful levers by which we can minimize future emissions while also producing greater gender equality and elevating both health outcomes and economic growth around the world. Some of the strategies to increase access to education for girls is by making education more affordable, helping girls overcome health barriers, reducing the time and distance to get to school, and making schools more girl-friendly. In many cultures, one health barrier is access to menstrual products as well as the culture stigma around menstruation that keeps many girls home during their periods. 

      What You Can Do:

      • Encourage the girls in your life to value education and support them however you can.
      • Educate women about their family planning options.
      • Support organizations locally and abroad that increase access to family planning resources.
      • Advocate and vote for better family planning education in your communities.
      • Donate to organizations that support girls’ education around the world like Girls’ Opportunity Alliance, CARE, or the Malala Fund.
      • Sponsor a girl monthly through an organization like the Invisible Girl Project.
      • Consider contributing to scholarships for women to attend college. 
      • Buy products that support women’s initiatives, including menstrual cups by Dot Cup that donate one cup for each that’s purchased or the red MamaP toothbrush that donates to Planned Parenthood!

      Key Takeaways

      Now that you know what actions can have the most impact, bookmark this page or Project Drawdown’s Table of Solutions to refer to the next time you’re deciding what new habits you want to start implementing, what causes you want to donate or dedicate your time to, what issues to prioritize when you’re voting, or what products or companies to support or avoid.

      Also, keep in mind that one general principle to minimize your footprint is to carry less. Avoid consuming more than you need whether it be new electronics, energy, food, or unnecessary products and packaging destined for the waste stream. We can lighten the load that these solutions address by scaling down the volume of the problems.

      Don’t underestimate your power as individual consumers and citizens to influence policy and industry by communicating your concerns and priorities via your votes, your dollars, and your voice. Research where candidates stand on the issues that matter. Vote for the legislation and lawmakers on your ballot that align with these priorities. Aren’t satisfied with the options you see on your ballot? Make sure they’re on the next one by learning how to propose ballot measures in your state or municipality or by running for office yourself! Spend your money at businesses that put the planet front and center and ditch the ones that don’t. Don’t see any effectively addressing the issues? Start your own or help fund ventures actively working to solve our most pressing problems. If nothing else, write letters, make phone calls, and show up in the offices of both companies and elected officials to let them know what matters to you. They will listen. Check out our past blog post on How to Write to a Company or Elected Official About Plastic Reduction Policies for inspiration.

      Above all, do something. It’s clear from these solutions that we can all play a role in reducing the impact of the climate crisis. Start at the top of the list with the actions you know can have the biggest impact, focus on the issue(s) you’re most passionate about or can best be served by your talents, or just take a crack at whichever feels the most approachable for you. Let us know what you plan to do next!

      -Alex Gamboa Grand


      Last edited 11/22

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