There are a lot of differing opinions on whether it’s too late to climate change — and, if it’s not the best way of going about it. Some say recycling is useless and that individual action means nothing against the larger policy reforms that need to happen. This is, in part, true — although you should absolutely still be recycling. But it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it doesn’t help those who are currently on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Here, we break down 10 solutions to climate change that will actually make a difference — and how you can help make them all a reality.
1. Shift to renewable energy sources in all key sectors
The United Nations identified a six-sector solution to climate change, focusing on actions that can be taken by the energy, industry, agriculture, transportation, nature-based solutions, and urban planning. If all of these actions are completed, the UN Environment Programme estimates we could reduce global carbon emissions by 29 to 32 gigatonnes, thereby limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5º C.
One key element of this plan is shifting to renewable energy sources, both at home and at work. “We have the necessary technology to make this reduction by shifting to renewable energy and using less energy,” the UNEP writes of our personal energy consumption (generally, fossil fuels power our homes, keeping the lights on, our rooms warm, and Netflix streaming). But the energy usage of the industrial sector also plays a key role: Addressing issues like methane leaks and switching at large scale to passive or renewable energy-based heating and cooling systems could reduce industrial carbon emissions by 7.3 gigatonnes every year.
2. Reduce food loss and waste and shift to more sustainable diets
There are a few different ways that climate change and hunger go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s kale or Kobe beef, producing food accounts for some measure of greenhouse gasses. In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated we consumed more meat than ever before. By 2050 this will, by some estimates, increase greenhouse gas emissions from food production by 60%. Likewise, many farmers use nitrous-based fertilizers to grow more crops, more quickly to meet demand.
It’s important to reduce food waste at every step of the food system. For us as consumers, we can commit to eating what we buy and composting what we don’t get to in time. We can also switch our focus to plant-based and other sustainable diets, supporting farms that use organic fertilizers and making beef and other meat products the exception rather than the rule at the dinner table.
3. Halt deforestation and commit to rebuilding damaged ecosystems
The rapid deforestation of the Earth, especially over the last 60 years, has contributed to climate change, creating “heat islands” out of land that would normally be protected by trees and other flora from overheating. Simply put, this has to stop. There are actions each of us can take as individuals to help halt this—going paperless and buying recycled paper products, planting trees or supporting organizations that do this (like Concern), and recycling.
But change has to happen at a larger scale here. Illegal logging happens both in the United States and abroad. Last year, world leaders committed to halting this and other harmful practices by 2030 as part of COP26. You can help by holding your own elected leaders to account.
4. Embrace electric vehicles, public transport, and other non-motorized options for getting around
The carbon savings on junking your current car in favor of an electric model are basically nullified if you aren’t seriously in the market for a new vehicle. However, mass adoption of electric vehicles and public transport — along with walking, biking, skating, and scooting — is key to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions from fuel-based motor vehicles.
This is another issue you can raise with elected officials. Earlier this year, for example, you may remember hearing that President Biden had been encouraging the US Postal System to adopt electric vans as part of its new fleet. This didn’t come to pass, but it’s changes like these — changes beyond any one person’s transportation method — that need to happen. You can call on your representatives to support these switchovers for delivery vehicles, cab and taxi fleets, ambulances, and other auto-centric services. Or, if your city or town lacks decent public transportation or enough bike lanes or sidewalks to make those alternatives to driving, lobby for those.
5. Subsidize low-carbon alternatives for urban planning
In tandem with low-carbon alternatives for public transportation, governments need to commit to similar measures with our growing cities. New buildings mean a new opportunity to reward green design methods that help to decrease the strain on urban resources, whether they’re apartments or entertainment venues. (Fun fact: The Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center in Athens runs almost entirely off of solar panels during the bright and sunny summer months.) In cities like New York, we’ve seen the toll that excessive power use can take through rolling blackouts and brown-outs, especially in the summer months. Changes to public infrastructure that reduce our reliance on the power grid will help to keep the system from becoming untenably overloaded.
6. Strengthen resilience and climate adaptation methods in MAPA communities
So far, we’ve looked at solutions to climate change that can take place within our own homes and communities. However, these only go so far to mitigate the damage that the climate crisis has already inflicted on a large portion of the world. The most affected people and areas (MAPAs) are largely in the Global South. Many are located in low-income countries without the resources or infrastructure to respond and adapt to climate disasters, even as they become more frequent and destructive.
Countries like the United States and organizations responding to the climate crisis must support MAPA communities, particularly the most vulnerable, in developing and carrying out strategies specific to context and designed to bolster resilience where it’s needed most. Often these communities know what needs to be done to mitigate the effects of climate change, and they simply need to be supported with access to additional research and meteorological data, new technologies, and funding.
7. Address poverty and other inequalities that increase vulnerability
The tem MAPA can also apply to individuals within a community. Women, disabled people, children, the elderly, people living in poverty, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ people are among those who are most likely to be hit harder by climate change because of preexisting societal marginalization. This is why it’s critical that they also have a seat at the decision-making table when it comes to solutions to climate change within their own communities. Ending poverty and the other systemic inequalities that give some people greater access to resources than others will help to offset some of the greatest threats posed by the climate crisis.
8. Invest in disaster risk reduction (DRR)
Disaster Risk Reduction (otherwise known as DRR) protects the lives and livelihoods of communities and individuals who are most vulnerable to disasters or emergencies. Whether the crisis is caused by nature or humans (or a combination of both), DRR limits its negative impact on those who stand to lose the most.
We can’t undo much of climate change’s impact so far, but we can help the communities who are hit hardest by these impacts to prepare for and respond to these emergencies once they strike.
9. Commit to fair financing and climate justice
Of course, DRR strategies and other resilience, adaptation, and mitigation practices cost money. Money that the countries most affected by climate change often lack. As part of a global commitment to climate justice, countries with the highest carbon footprints should be making restitution to those countries with lower footprints, countries that tend to be more vulnerable to global warming.
Countries like the United States must increase investments in disaster prevention and DRR strategies, such as early warning and response systems, forecast-based financing mechanisms, and adapted infrastructure. What’s more, these funds need to be made rapidly dispersible and flexible so that when emergency strikes, they can be accessed more quickly. Additional investment to prevent conflicts over the use of natural resources will also help countries facing both fragile political systems and a high risk for climate-related disasters.
10. Guarantee these changes in the long-term through policy reform
Few of the solutions listed above are not sustainable without policy reform. You can help by encouraging your elected officials to consider the above points, and to support bills that incorporate one or more of these solutions to climate change, many of which are currently being written and shared at the local and national levels.
Smart climate policy will prioritize people over corporations, consider the framework of climate justice — including land and water rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities, address the intersectional effects of climate change on hunger, poverty, and gender equality, and enforce regulatory frameworks and standards that commit people and institutions to honoring these new standards. Bold and aggressive action must be taken if we’re to reach the goal of not exceeding 1.5º C and mitigating the current effects of climate change by 2030. But it’s not a lost cause yet. It’s on all of us to now support those actions that are needed most.