The most effective ways to decrease our ecological footprint

In my last post, I introduced the concept of the ecological footprint and used it to explain the Climate Crisis on a global scale. Today, I want to provide solutions applicable to everyone! Awareness of the consequences of our actions is the first step, but acting on these is the next and most important one.

Determining the ecological footprint of your lifestyle

There are many online tools to determine the ecological footprint for a single person considering his or her lifestyle, e.g. the one from the Global Footprint Network or this German version from Brot für die Welt. They give you the chance to compare your lifestyle with those of others to get a feeling of how much you contribute to climate change with your own actions.

Basis of these calculations usually are these 4 main fields:

  • Dietary choice (especially judging consumption of meat and other animal products)
  • Housing situation (considering energy and water usage)
  • Consumption behavior and
  • Mobility.

The overall size of your footprint enables you to compare yourself with others. This way, you get a feeling as to how sustainable your lifestyle is and whether you might have to rethink some life choices to have less impact on the climate crisis.

The personal ecological footprint is a measure of how sustainable one's lifestyle is.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Identifying your personal potential for improvement

This pie chart demonstrates the contributors to a single person’s ecological footprint using averages for German consumers.

For this average German person, more than 30 % of their ecological footprint is used for their diet [1]. On average, a high amount of animal products is consumed in Germany, which makes up 80 % of the diet’s contribution to the ecological footprint.

The second biggest contributor (with 25 % of the full ecological footprint) is housing. The energy used for heating is one of the biggest drivers of this contribution. It is directly related to the amount of space a person lives on as more heating is necessary for more space.

Mobility also has a big influence on the ecological footprint, as it makes up 22 % of the footprint for the average German. Daily commutes as well as one-time events (such as a flight for the holidays) sum up to this amount.

Last but not least, the consumer goods we buy on a daily basis contribute to 18 %. This includes technology, fashion and consumables such as toiletries.

How can I lower my own ecological footprint?

Determining your own ecological footprint will already give you a feeling of what your personal main contributors are. There are many ways to lower your footprint, but it makes sense to check where you have most potential for improvement by comparing your own footprint to averages for your region. Some general possibilities with a lot of potential to lower your impact on the environment are:

  • With diet being such a major contributor, it is obvious that there is a lot of potential for improvement here. A plant based diet causes a significantly lower footprint. Any reduction in use of meat and animal products will help. Buy seasonal and local food!
  • Make efficient use of housing options: Shared housing is a great way to optimize energy use. Furthermore, try to reduce heating and use energy efficient appliances. This will also save you money!
  • Also the daily commute and your general choice of mobility influences your footprint. Try to avoid driving and flying whenever possible and choose climate neutral options such as biking, public transport or trains! If you have to use a car, use a small one (not an SUV!) with low fuel consumption. Make sure its engine and catalyst are in good shape to minimize emissions. Try to carpool as often as possible!
  • Rethink your consumption behavior: You might not always have to buy new electronics or follow the latest fast fashion trend.

Of course this list can be extended continuously. I am sure you can find many examples in your own lifestyle where you can act more sustainable. Many of my blog posts focus on different and new ways to lower one’s ecological footprint. Always be aware of your choices and have sustainable options in mind, this will help you on the long term!

The most effective ways to lower your ecological footprint – according to science

2017, scientists from Sweden and the United States of America published a study showing the most effective ways for individuals to lower their carbon footprint [2]. They collected a wide list of actions individuals can conduct and calculated which ones will have the highest positive impact on the environment. Their results were split into three groups: Actions with low, medium or high impact.

Changing to LED light bulbs has little effect on one's ecological footprint.
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Changing to LED light bulbs, saving water or packaging and planting a tree are actions with little impact, according to [2]. Luckily, they are also the actions which are easiest to do. Even if their impact is low, they will add up to something big!

The following actions were determined to have medium effectiveness to lower emissions of individuals in [2]:

  • Improving heating and cooling efficiency of your home
  • Install solar panels
  • Use public transportation, bike or walk
  • Conserve energy
  • Eat less meat
  • Reduce consumption, recycle and reuse .

This agrees nicely with the impact these factors have on the ecological footprint of individuals, so there is a lot of potential for improvement here.

The actions rated highest in effectiveness to lower emissions (data from [2]) are also the most radical:

Having one fewer child was determined to be by far most the effective way to lower your emissions – and thereby your impact on the environment. This does not show up in the ecological footprint calculations, because children have their own footprint, so they are not added to your personal footprint.

Of course, this is just a statistic. I am aware that this is a personal choice and that for many people, children make them rethink their actions and make them choose more sustainable options in their general lifestyle. But it is a valuable point to consider when planning a family. And it does not mean you should not have children – adoption can in that aspect be seen as rather climate-neutral because it does not add a person to an overpopulated earth – but it might help you to consider all options.

Where does this leave us?

There are many ways to reduce your ecological footprint. Even those with little impact DO have an impact. The important thing is to start thinking about the consequences of our actions and act on it. Everyone of us has it in their own hands – we are not powerless, even if sometimes it feels like it. We all have the power to change our behavior – and thereby change the world. Let’s do this!


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