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  • Planetary health

Living a climate-friendly life

How to successfully develop a new routine

Protecting the climate is our responsibility

This is not the first time the world has experienced climate change. 50 million years ago, the planet was 5 degrees warmer and palm trees grew in Alaska. 50,000 years ago, temperatures were 5 degrees colder and conditions were perfect for saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths [1].

Unlike in the past, climate change is currently not due to natural phenomena like CO2-emitting volcanoes. Now it is man-made. Emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) have risen continuously since the beginning of industrialization, causing the global average temperature to rise as well [2-4].

Deforestation and burning fossil fuels are two of the major causes. What was once a source of energy and a catalyst for prosperity has become a significant man-made problem. Only humans can prevent, or at least mitigate, the serious consequences. Fortunately, each of us can do something to help [2-6].

The speed of our efforts to fight climate change is by no means irrelevant. On the contrary, there are a number of so-called "tipping points" that make climate action extremely urgent. Once climate change has exceeded certain thresholds, the changes might be irreversible and lead to a domino effect of further changes within the system [7-9]. 

We all need to take action and do whatever we can to stop climate change. 

Climate protection in everyday life

People are "creatures of habit,” which in and of itself is neither good nor bad. But experience shows that finger-wagging and New Year's resolutions don’t always work. The same applies to climate change. It’s important to build new habits and maintain them for the long term.

The extent to which habits determine our everyday lives has now been well studied. According to research, there are four basic steps to building a new habit: "context," "friction," "reward," and "repetition" [10].

If you want to exercise more, for example, the four steps might look like this: Go for a jog every morning before work (context). Move your alarm clock to the other side of the room (friction) so you can’t hit the snooze button. After jogging, treat yourself to something special (reward). Continue doing this for at least 3 months (repetition) until a new daily routine becomes automatic [10].

These four steps work just as well for building climate-friendly habits.

Eating regional, seasonal, and plant-based diets

The amount of greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Germany is almost twice the global average, and 15 % are attributed to food alone. Eating seasonal and regional foods is a simple way to reduce one’s ecological footprint, since more energy is consumed when transporting and storing food [11, 12].

It’s also important to keep an eye on the "greenhouse gas footprint" of various foods. Animal products such as meat, cheese, and eggs have significantly worse footprints than plant products such as legumes, cereals, fruit, and vegetables [11-13]. 

Here too, the devil is in the details: Tomatoes grown in heated greenhouses or avocados flown in from afar do not necessarily perform better just because they are plants [11].

Giving up flying

For many people, flying is the epitome of freedom and often the fastest way to warmer climes. However, it is also the worst mode of transportation for the climate. Instead of flying 2,500 kilometers from Frankfurt to Mallorca, it would be much better to drive 4,000 kilometers by car. Driving with passengers reduces the carbon footprint even further [14].

Naturally it’s up to each individual person to decide which air travel is really necessary. However, every kilometer flown counts towards your personal ecological footprint, regardless of the occasion or length of stay. At almost 6 % of emissions per capita, flying remains a major culprit among avoidable emissions [11].

Alternatives include other modes of transportation, closer vacation destinations, and video calls instead of business trips. If flying is unavoidable, “carbon offsetting" is another option. By donating money to climate protection projects, you can help reduce emissions elsewhere to compensate for flights. Of course, donations are welcome even if you choose not to fly [14, 15].

Driving cars less frequently

One fifth of all emissions in Germany are caused by automobile traffic. While emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants from new cars have fallen, traffic has increased in general and its impact on the climate remains high. It appears we’re stuck at a standstill [16]. 

As with flying, the question of giving up driving is very personal and depends on your unique situation. That said, it’s an easy way to significantly reduce emissions. For many of us, public transportation, cycling, and walking are practical alternatives [16, 17].

Anyone who doesn’t need a car every day could also consider car sharing. Besides being good for the climate, it’s a great way to save on maintenance costs and gas. If you regularly drive the same route as others, carpooling might be another option. Carpooling websites can help find other eco-friendly people who want to get where you’re going [16, 18, 19].

Rethinking consumer behavior

Our consumer behavior includes all of the goods and services we use in our lives and accounts for 40 % of our per capita emissions. Most of the things we consume are so firmly anchored in our everyday lives that we no longer even perceive them as consumption. They are just a normal part of life [11, 20].  

Again, the math is simple here and any adjustment can reduce our ecological footprint. The challenge is going through everything in our lives and identifying what we can live without. This can also be psychologically rewarding. Science no longer supports the assumption that giving up something makes people unhappy [21].

Most of us know that a simple Google search can tell us the eco-balance of any activity, whether it’s streaming a movie or ordering food for delivery. When doing such calculations, it’s important to watch out for the so-called "rebound effect." This occurs when our behavior cancels out any savings from energy efficiency. For example, a new electrical appliance may be more efficient than the old one, but might consume more electricity in the end if it is larger or used more frequently [11].

Checklist for building new climate-friendly habits
Checklist for building new climate-friendly habits

The complete approach and more details can be found here.

It is also interesting to observe how much we consume to distract ourselves from negative feelings. Getting to the "root" of an emotional problem can help us find long-term solutions that improve our consumer behavior. 

Peer pressure is another factor that influences many habits. For example, someone might give you a birthday present that doesn’t fit your climate goals. This might also pressure you to give a similar gift when it’s the other person’s birthday. Having an open conversation with friends and family can help them understand your position and possibly encourage them to change their behavior as well.  

The climate and your health

Climate change impacts your health more than most people think. The good news is: so does a climate-friendly lifestyle.

How the climate affects health

As climate change progresses, extreme weather events such as heat waves, storms, and floods are becoming more common. Air pollution is getting worse, and food security is becoming a global issue. All of these changes have serious consequences on health [9, 23, 24].

Climate change is already resulting in a multitude of challenges. More and more people are falling ill and dying due to extreme heat. Storms and floods are destroying people's homes and making it harder to grow crops. While clean drinking water and food are becoming scarcer, the number of parasites and disease-carrying animals are increasing. Pollutants in the air are leading to lung complications and diseases [9, 23, 24].  

These developments can also be seen in Germany. People with pre-existing conditions are having a harder time coping with increasing heat waves. Warmer conditions are also making it possible for exotic mosquitoes to survive in Germany and spread infectious diseases [25].

Luckily, we still have time to do something about it.

A climate-friendly life is a healthy life

The more we come together, the more likely it is we can stop these climate-related changes from happening. Understandably, many people are reluctant to take action if others are not going to join in and do their part. There is good news here too. Many of these habits are not only good for the climate, but also for personal health. You are guaranteed to improve your own quality of life, no matter how many other people join in [26]. 

A balanced, predominantly plant-based diet is both climate-friendly and healthy. The diet of the future will largely consist of whole-grain products, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and legumes, with fewer animal products and processed foods. Increased physical activity when cycling or walking also benefits both the climate and your health [27-30].

What may surprise even more people are the positive effects on mental health. This is attributed not only to good nutrition and exercise, but also to a reduction in consumerism. A growing body of research shows that consciously living with less has a positive impact on general well-being and satisfaction in life [21, 31].

So what are we waiting for?

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