The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions
Current anthropogenic climate change is the result of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, which records the aggregation of billions of individual decisions. Here we consider a broad range of individual lifestyle choices and calculate their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, based on 148 scenarios from 39 sources. We recommend four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year). These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less). Though adolescents poised to establish lifelong patterns are an important target group for promoting high-impact actions, we find that ten high school science textbooks from Canada largely fail to mention these actions (they account for 4% of their recommended actions), instead focusing on incremental changes with much smaller potential emissions reductions. Government resources on climate change from the EU, USA, Canada, and Australia also focus recommendations on lower-impact actions. We conclude that there are opportunities to improve existing educational and communication structures to promote the most effective emission-reduction strategies and close this mitigation gap.