Geographer Seth Wynes studies what individuals and institutions can do to advance climate change progress.
What individual lifestyle choices have the highest impact on climate change? A 2017 study by environmental geographer Seth Wynes showed that the four of the most impactful actions that individuals can take to lighten their carbon footprint are (in order of impact): having fewer children, living car free, reducing air travel, and switching to a plant‑based diet.
If those findings surprise you, it might be because they’re not the strategies most commonly promoted by governments, educators and the media. In fact, when Wynes analyzed a representative sample of educational materials (including 10 Canadian high school textbooks) as well as government resources on climate change from the EU, US, Canada and Australia, he found they largely fail to mention these actions. Instead, they focus on things like recycling, switching light bulbs or using cloth shopping bags – actions that have a relatively minor impact on emissions.
Wynes, a former high‑school science teacher, was puzzled by this. After all, avoiding just one roundtrip transatlantic flight per year reduces more emissions than switching to green energy. Adopting a plant‑based lifestyle is four times more impactful than comprehensive recycling and aligns with healthcare advice. And a US family choosing to have one less child would result in the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers adopting comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.
So why are governments telling people to switch their light bulbs instead of encouraging them to fly less and reduce their meat intake?
Wynes suggests the messaging may have been designed with a “foot in the door” approach. “If you start people on small actions that are easily achievable, then they can be scaled up later,” he says. “But it’s time to move onto the next stage.” He says it’s critical to revamp our educational materials to promote high‑impact strategies, especially those targeted at young people who are establishing lifelong patterns.
Case Study: Reducing Business‑Related Air Travel at UBC
Currently, Wynes is investigating what might nudge people from knowledge about climate change mitigation to pro‑environmental actions. His latest research looks at a case study close to home: the carbon impacts of business‑related air travel at UBC.
It may sound like small fry in the context of climate change mitigation, but the impacts would be huge: his study found that business‑related air travel emissions at UBC could be equal to a whopping 63‑73 per cent of the total annual emissions from operating the UBC campus. In Wynes’ home department, emissions from business‑related air travel by faculty members was 30 times greater than emissions from running the geography building.
“We know that air travel generates a lot of emissions, while UBC’s campus emissions are small for a university this size,” says Wynes, “so it’s not surprising that business air travel has such a big footprint at UBC. Going forward air travel is going to be one of the last big sustainability hurdles for any university.”
Wynes understands that academic life involves a lot of travel – conferences in faraway places, lectures across the globe. But would his colleagues cut down on air travel if they knew more about the carbon impacts of their travel choices and were given better options for meeting virtually with their colleagues around the world?
“I’m trying to figure out how people view their own air travel, how organizations can encourage low‑carbon alternatives, and whether professionals can fly less without making career sacrifices,” says Wynes. “Air travel is such a carbon‑intensive personal action, so it’s really worthwhile to look at different ways that we can reduce demand and help people do their jobs well without taking so many flights.”
Based on the findings from their UBC case study, Wynes and his coauthor and supervisor Simon Donner have proposed a roadmap for public sector institutions looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from air travel (and as a side benefit, cut costs). This includes better tracking and communication of air‑travel related emissions, improving video conferencing facilities, requiring economy‑class travel (choosing a higher class was responsible for 8 per cent of emissions), and reducing flights solely for lectures.
Wynes is now partnering with UBC Travel and UBC Sustainability and Engineering to use the university as a living lab for curbing business‑related air travel. “What we learn about how to cut emissions from business air travel can hopefully be used by other universities and institutions around the world,” he says.
Why is climate change a topic you have decided to devote your research and time to?
Seth Wynes: “We are in a crucial window of time where we can decide what kind of future we will live in, and it’s important that we choose one where the atmosphere is compatible with human well‑being. That gives me motivation to get up in the mornings.”
If there was one solution or recommendation that you would like people to take away from your climate research, what would it be?
Seth Wynes: “My number one recommendation to individuals would be to go big. So many of the actions that are suggested by the media are chosen because they’re small and they’re easy, but this problem is not small and it is not easy. Take trains, not planes, eat a plant‑based diet and live car free!”
- The human cost of climate change
- The politics of putting a price on pollution
- The psychology of climate action