Illustration by Neyva Hernandez

You, Me and the Trees: Individual Action Against Climate Change

You might not be able to single-handedly mitigate the climate change but there are some easy steps you can take as an individual that can have a big impact.

According to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century have most likely been induced by human activities and most leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. This compelling evidence for climate change manifests itself through global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, sea level rise and ocean acidification.
The threats of climate change are widely known. While the overarching solution is to simply decrease greenhouse gas emissions, economic and political factors have hindered the responsible actors from reaching binding and comprehensive macro-scale public policy. This inefficiency of governments has strengthened activism, particularly among youth groups, and spurred many individuals to take grassroots initiatives aimed at reducing emissions. However, what it means to act against climate change on an individual level is often misunderstood because of complexities surrounding climate change.
First, it is important to note that the environmental crisis extends beyond climate change. To a certain extent, current narratives on climate change have shifted our focus away from other environmental issues which also need attention. Ocean pollution and mass extinction of species are enormous issues — and although climate change can encompass them — they are separate problems that require targeted solutions. For instance, while decreasing emissions can mitigate climate change, it won’t stop the dumping of plastic waste into the oceans. Although minimizing the use of plastic plays a role in combating climate change, it has a larger effect on protecting the ocean ecosystem.
Emissions on an individual scale are largely due to consumption habits. Most of our daily decisions ranging from electricity, food and water consumption to transportation habits all impose a certain cost on the environment. For example, if you eat a hamburger, you are increasing your personal carbon footprint through emissions associated with raising cattle and other ingredients, emissions that result from the production, transportation and storage of patties, buns and such, and the emissions from packaging waste. It is estimated that a typical cheeseburger releases an additional 2.85 to 3.1 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Our carbon emissions largely reflect our lifestyle. One study at MIT shows that average carbon dioxide emissions per person in the U.S. was twenty metric tons per year, compared to a world average of four tons. Even the people with the lowest usage of energy in the U.S. are still producing, on average, more than double the global per capita average of four tons. The worldwide target to combat climate change is two metric tons per person.
If you decide to reduce your individual impact on climate change, it is imperative for you to measure your carbon footprint. There are many online resources that allow you to accurately estimate your carbon footprint. Once you calculate your carbon footprint, you can either begin to prevent or offset emissions. To do so, individuals can change their consumption habits and shift towards conscious consumerism and not emit in the first place. However, it is practically not feasible to go carbon neutral just by avoiding consumption habits that leave impact on the environment.
One might go vegan to reduce their carbon footprint, but may still fly frequently. Flights emit a huge amount of CO2 and it is impossible to avoid them, for instance when one is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to International Civil Aviation Organization a United Nations aviation entity, a two-way ticket from Kathmandu to Ghana to New York emits a total of 2,572.53 kilograms of CO2 per person. Other estimates suggest that ICAO underestimates the emissions and a return flight from Abu Dhabi to New York alone emits 1.61 metric tons of CO2. Even if we take the overly optimistic data, the emission from a flight is equivalent to having 857 cheeseburgers. Clearly, going vegan has a negligible impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions if one flies frequently.
Carbon offsetting is a process of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in order to compensate for or to offset existing emissions. Given that carbon offsetting is not cheap, it is important to realize what can then be done on an individual level. Currently, there are a number of organizations that invest in carbon sequestration projects through which one can offset their emissions. You can pay extra to buy a flight ticket with offsetted carbon emissions; however, these are rather expensive. One cheap and reliable way to offset a large portion of individual emissions is by planting trees.
Carbon sequestration is one of the many benefits of healthy trees. A tree can absorb as much as 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester one ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. While forests do release some CO2 during decay and respiration, a healthy forest sequesters more carbon than it releases. Given the vast benefits of trees, many organizations have led afforestation campaigns all around the world. For example, MillionTreesNYC just reached their goal of planting one million trees two years ahead of schedule in New York City. While protection of forests in the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests can lead to huge amount of carbon sequestration, this is not applicable to regions like the UAE.
On an individual scale, options for going carbon neutral are, at best, limited. You either have to sacrifice your consumption habits entirely or you need to pay for an NGO to offset your emissions. However, prevention is always better than finding a cure. It would be ideal if we could not emit in the first place rather than having to find a solution to offset our emissions. It is important that both the public and the private sectors make structural changes to the existing energy market to reduce emissions rather than solely burdening individuals. Individuals should do what they can given their personal interest in this issue and willingness to contribute. If you are looking for a place to start, planting trees is a great idea.
Rastraraj Bhandari is a Climate Columnist. Email him at
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