We are living in an age of increasing concern about climate change. Driven by the science, governments are setting more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. In June 2019, the UK announced a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Over 70% of British citizens live in local areas which have declared a climate emergency. At the same time, civil society movements including Extinction Rebellion and Youth Strike for Climate, inspired by Greta Thunberg, are mobilising many, particularly young people.

Concern reaches beyond activists; a recent poll showed that the proportion of people in the UK who are ‘very concerned’ about climate change has jumped to a record 52%, up from just 18% five years ago. But what can individuals do? Indeed, is individual action worthwhile, given the planetary scale of climate change?

Prominent academics and activists have engaged in debates about the relative merits of ‘system change’ versus ‘individual change’. Most conclude that both are needed, and that these changes are interdependent: since only individuals can change the system, and without system change most individuals cannot live low- or zero-carbon lives. The more important focus is on what actions individuals should prioritise in everyday life, and how best to contribute to larger-scale change.

On average, travel, home energy use and food consumption are the three biggest contributors to an individual’s carbon footprint, with other goods and services making up the rest, although everyone’s footprint is different. Nevertheless, some general guidance applies (see box below).

Many of these changes will save money and have benefits for health, comfort and local air quality, beyond ‘just’ reducing carbon emissions.

The transformation to a low-carbon society is vital to avoid catastrophic climate change. New thinking and policy ideas can help deliver change in a just and positive way.

To influence the wider social and political system, there are many local and national organisations to join which are working for change. You can email or write to your MP or local politicians. You can join a march. You can talk to friends, classmates and work colleagues about climate change.

Given that society-wide and individual change are needed, how can we connect these very different scales? The University of Oxford, and others, are developing thinking on sufficiency, and specifically energy sufficiency, to explore how individual needs can be met, fairly, within environmental limits. The idea of sufficiency – something which is enough for a particular purpose – goes beyond efficiency, traditionally key to energy demand policy. Sufficiency links to individual values and ideas of the good life. Turning this concept into workable and publicly acceptable policies is work in progress.

Another innovative Oxford idea is ‘personal carbon allowances’, where each individual receives an equal carbon allowance to cover household energy and travel, which reduces over time to meet national targets. Allowances would be tradeable, so that those with lower carbon lifestyles could sell their surplus to others. This too makes an explicit link between individual actions and national and global targets.

Oxford is also leading a new multi-university research centre – the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), which aims to help achieve the goal of becoming a low-carbon society.

There is much to do. Some changes are within individuals’ power to make right now, such as choosing not to fly abroad on holiday. Others will take longer and need infrastructure change, such as better public transport and cycling options. The transformation to a low-carbon society is vital to avoid catastrophic climate change. New thinking and policy ideas can help deliver change in a just and positive way. We are all part of the solution.

Individual actions

1. Understand your consumption patterns. How much energy do you use? What for? How many miles do you travel by car? Why?

2. Reduce waste – particularly of energy and food. Nobody means to waste, but nearly all of us do. Action can range from switching off lights to low-energy home refurbishment.

3. Increase your active travel – walking and cycling. Drive less. Reduce or avoid air travel.

4. Eat more plant-based meals, and less meat and dairy.

5. Make plans for a low-carbon future. How could you become less car-dependent? How might you heat your home without fossil fuels?

Individual actions
More plant-based, less meat and diary