We start our five-part series on sustainability in Canada with a primer on how our actions make a difference for the environment.
Part 1: Individual Impact
When faced with the reality of climate change, personal actions like reducing your plastic consumption or choosing to bike instead of drive can feel woefully small. But are these types of actions actually trivial, or when taken together over years, do they make a considerable impact?
“At the end of the day it’s collective action that matters, but there are a lot of personal choices that people can make to reduce their carbon footprint,” says Sabaa Khan, the director general for Quebec and Atlantic Canada at the David Suzuki Foun-dation. “That could be a range of actions that go from low impact to moderate impact to high impact. But one seemingly low or moderate impact choice when scaled up to hundreds of millions of individuals can really lead to a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” Collective action, therefore, is important for sweeping change, and relies on individuals all making the same choices repeatedly over time.
“Larger systemic changes are needed, but it’s not mutually exclusive to individuals taking action to live more sustainably—that doesn’t have to compete with demanding large-scale climate solutions,” says Alannah Hardcastle, the social impact manager at Random Acts of Green, an Ontario-based climate action social enterprise. “I think it’s disempowering to say that individual actions don’t matter, because there are so many ways that people can lower their own carbon footprint.”
A carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are generated by an entity, like an individual, business, organization or country. Carbon footprints take into account different greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) but are expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalency, making it easier to compare various footprints.
“A carbon footprint encompasses emissions that result from our actions, our consumption, transportation and energy patterns,” Khan says. “Any time we burn fossil fuels for energy, it creates heat-trapping gases, and these gases act like a greenhouse would—hence the name greenhouse gases—and that heat in turn creates all of these [climate] impacts.”
Many online calculators exist that can help you measure your approximate carbon footprint, but on the whole, Canada ranks pretty high when it comes to the average amount of greenhouse gas emitted per capita. In 2020, 17.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent were emitted per person, which is a number that has decreased since 2005 but is still about three times the global rate.
When it comes to reducing your own carbon footprint, Khan says there are a variety of actions you can take, but three areas with the highest impact are transportation, energy and food habits. Living car-free, taking public transport, avoiding trans-Atlantic flights, buying green energy or eating a more plant-based diet are all ways to decrease your imprint.
“It really depends on [factors like] what city you live in, what transportation options you have, and what work you do, so it’s hard to come up with generalized recommendations that fit everyone’s different circumstances,” Khan says. “But I think that becoming aware of one’s carbon footprint and looking at decisions that you make on a daily basis—what you’re consuming, how you’re transporting yourself—is really important.”
Khan also notes that being conscious about the products we buy and use in our everyday lives—like those with excess plastic packaging, for example—can make a difference.
“By demanding that supply chains prioritize climate and biodiversity concerns in their decision making, we can really keep the pressure on business leaders and corporations to offer us the kind of production and consumption change we need to live a healthy life,” she says.
No matter what changes you choose to make, one thing that’s key is ensuring those changes become lasting habits. Hardcastle notes that awareness and education are the first steps, but from there, it’s important to set goals and consciously commit to following through.
“For a goal to be effective, it should have a concrete and step-by-step plan,” she says. “An example might be: To combat plastic pollution I’m going to reduce three pieces of single-use plastics in my kitchen by the end of this month. I’ll do this by doing a waste audit on my garbage, find three things to change and then seek out alternatives for them. Once you’ve taken that action, you can move to the bathroom or laundry room and soon it will be a normal consideration to reduce waste before you buy.”
Hardcastle also notes that while reducing your footprint is important, there are many other productive steps you can take as well.
“Environmental action doesn’t just have to focus on lowering your greenhouse gas emissions. It can also include actions that have a positive impact for the environment,” she says. “For example, consider the loss of biodiversity. You can help support biodiversity where you live by setting up a bird feeder, and doing so can have an immediate positive impact by supporting local native plants and animals.”
Khan also says that it can be helpful to focus more generally on the constructive aspects of what we have to gain by living more sustainably.
“When we talk about moving to a climate-safe future, we should really see this as something that’s about safeguarding the health and survival of natural ecosystems and human societies,” she says. “Sometimes there’s this thinking that we have to compromise our well-being because of the ecological crisis that we’re in, but we have to reverse this perspective and see sustainability as more about protecting health and generating well-being.”
With that in mind, Hardcastle notes that even the smallest actions can result in big changes.
“Involve other people in your journey—talk about climate change, share what you’re learning and what actions you’re taking. Doing this helps to make sustainable living more visible and more normalized, and it can help to create a ripple effect of change through the people that it reaches, which in turn can change the world.”
► Want more climate content? Stay tuned for upcoming articles that dive into how to live more sustainably.