As companies get deeper and deeper into greenwashing, being eco-friendly is often sold to us as something we can do with our pocketbooks—buy a more carbon-friendly brand of clothing, or upgrade your appliances to be more efficient. But cutting your carbon footprint doesn’t have to mean spending money. It can, in fact, mean saving a lot.
Living a life that’s lighter on the planet doesn’t have to mean cutting out everything, though. Some choices matter more than others, carbon-wise. A wide-ranging 2017 study found that in terms of bang for your buck, there are 12 actions that can make some difference. But there are four choices that can substantially cut your personal carbon footprint. Here are those four actions and how they could also help your household budget, too. (And a reminder why it’s not all on you to solve the climate crisis.)
The researchers estimate getting rid of your car can save an average of 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s a lot compared to other options that are more commonly promoted, like changing light bulbs or recycling, which are several times less effective in terms of pure carbon emissions.
At first glance, this choice seems like a winner finance-wise. I don’t have a car, and I know I’m better off financially each month not having to pay for insurance, parking, maintenance, and gas, to say nothing of the upfront cost of actually buying a vehicle. Switching from a gas-powered car to an electric car may be cost-effective, especially if you get a cheaper model of EV and consider the amount of money you’d save on gas over the lifespan of your car. But EVs also take emissions to manufacture and put on the market, as well as any emissions associated with plugging them into the electric grid; in terms of life cycle emissions, a car-free life wins out.
But there are a lot of caveats. I live in New York City, which has a robust public transit system, but, by some metrics, is the most expensive city in the U.S. to live in. I also pay for my monthly bus and train fare as well as maintenance on my bike, and my Uber account isn’t exactly inactive (and those rides can add up, emissions-wise). Being car-less in New York is a much different proposition than going without a car in many other places where public transportation isn’t as good. E-bike ridership is starting to expand, but those still require an upfront investment, as well as a bike-friendly place to live and extra considerations for how you want to travel when bikes may not be the best idea.
Ironically, the suggestion to go car-free is, at its core, also assuming that you have the financial luxury to do so. Some studies show that American families without a car earn less than those with a car, and there’s also research suggesting that car ownership can help lift some families out of poverty. Car ownership illustrates the unique spectrum of American inequality; while some families might not own a car because it’s too expensive, the ability to not own a car is, paradoxically, often an indicator of financial well-being.
Ditching the car isn’t an option for everyone, but pushing for communities with better car-free options totally is. Perhaps instead of selling your car altogether, look into some community carpooling options to save money and emissions—and try to convince your new rideshare buddies to get involved in local politics that will improve bike lanes and public transit.
The next suggestion also seems similarly simple: Take fewer big plane trips. Airplane rides are one of the most carbon-intensive activities on Earth, not to mention pretty hard on the pocketbook. This, again, seems like a win-win for the planet and your savings account. The study found that taking just one less transatlantic flight saves about 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year—less than living car-free, sure, but with a lot less disruption (and potential cost) to your daily life.
I conducted a quick experiment using the International Civil Aviation Organization’s flight carbon emissions calculator and searching for airfare on Kayak for a hypothetical vacation week I’d take in January to see the potential differences. Were I to take a dreamy vacation in Paris—I found flights starting at around $500 round-trip—the flights there and back would emit 1472 pounds (668 kilograms) of carbon dioxide just to transport me alone. Alternatively, I could go to Austin, Texas, to visit friends and drink beer and eat barbeque. That would emit around 974 pounds (442 kilograms) of carbon dioxide, and flights start at around $200. Smart on both ends!
But, again, there’s some caveats. If you have family who live abroad, not taking regular flights to see them might be totally out of the question. And, like the car-free idea, this recommendation assumes a pretty high level of financial mobility already. The bulk of carbon emissions from flights aren’t from people taking an occasional vacation, but frequent fliers: 1% of the global population was responsible for half of the world’s commercial flight emissions in 2018. Like the car-free option, the assumption here is that you already have money to spend on elaborate vacations, which makes this recommendation not exactly accessible to a lot of people.
Perhaps the least sexy option to cut your emissions is also, arguably, the cheapest: Eating a plant-based diet. While switching to plant-based foods isn’t as big a carbon-cutter as axing driving and flying, a plant-based diet still saves an average of 0.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, around eight times more effective than changing your lightbulbs, and around four times more than regularly recycling.
And it’s hard to overstate the cost-effectiveness of this choice. You don’t need to buy anything special or new to eat more plant-based foods. Cutting out a carbon-heavy protein source like beef doesn’t mean you have to replace it with a fancy meat alternative. Rice and beans will do just fine and will run you pennies on the dollar at the cash register compared to the meaty alternative. A recent poll of eating habits in the UK found that vegan diets were 40% less expensive than diets containing meat and fish; in the U.S., meat prices are rising as long-term demand becomes more at-risk.
Anecdotally, when I started trying to eat more plant-based foods, I spent more time cooking at home trying out new recipes, which saved me money. (When I did go out, I found that most vegetarian options in restaurants were simply less expensive than the meatier options.) There are, of course, equity caveats to consider when it comes to food deserts and access to vegetables, and some people may require different types of protein other than plant-based for allergy or health reasons. But in terms of lifestyle choices, across the board, this seems to be the apex combination of the easiest, cheapest, and most effective in terms of emissions. It’s also a great way to introduce friends, family, and reluctant community members to the idea of consuming more resources, and it’s helpful for market trends too: as more Americans adopt a plant-based diet, the availability of non-meat options in restaurants is slowly increasing.
Of course, if we’re really boiling down these options to pure numbers, the far and away most cost-effective way to cut your carbon emissions is not having kids. Both in terms of money and carbon, avoiding kids is the clear winner. Being child-free saves an incredible 60 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, while the average cost of raising a kid in the U.S. to age 18 is $284,570—and that’s not even including the cost of college.
Here’s where it’s a good reminder that the idea of a carbon footprint was originally dreamed up by oil companies as a way for them to deflect blame. It is, ultimately, an unrealistic standard to live strictly by. Human beings can’t be boiled down to numbers; the decision to have children, or occasionally see different and faraway places, or buy a car to make life easier, is nuanced, and often has as much to do with your own personal life than it does the hard numbers.
While it’s a good idea for both your pocketbook and the planet to try and use the car less or make your vacations simpler, the changes we need go far beyond our individual choices. It requires fixing the systems that allow fossil fuel companies to profit from destroying the planet—not when we micromanage our lives based on a system of dollars and emissions. If you’re on a budget, try going mostly vegetarian for a while. But don’t forget to talk with your friends over that meal about how you’re going to hold fossil fuel companies accountable, too.