Individual actions are critical

Individual behavior change is critical to prevent 2°C degrees of warming. It’s just as important as top-down political reform, writes Lily Dempster, founder and CEO of the One Small Step app.

There’s a very convincing argument permeating our modern discourse around climate change. It sounds something like this: individual action as a means of climate change mitigation is “a brilliant con”. Fruitless, ineffective, and insidiously designed to absolve big oil and big government of any responsibility – shifting the blame entirely onto the hapless public.

Before I started One Small Step, I used to think like this too.

Back in 2015 I was working for a national advocacy group in Australia, GetUp, campaigning for a clean energy transition. I felt strongly that the best use of civic society’s time and resources was to put organized, political pressure on the biggest actors in our system: national governments and multinational corporations. This approach made logical sense at first, as these stakeholders have the most obvious, quantifiable power and influence over society’s carbon emissions; and are most to blame for our prolonged inaction.

However, the question of ‘who is most to blame for the climate crisis’ is very different from the question of ‘what must we do to solve the climate crisis?’­ – and when we focus all our attention on the worst actors like Exxon Mobil and Shell, we often overlook the complex, socio-political mechanisms that are simultaneously and collectively affecting and accelerating climate change.

The role of individual action is counter-intuitive. I developed my own understanding of this only after years of working in climate campaigning and studying systems change and complex network systems at an academic level. To insist that you can have radical top-down change without bottom-up shifts or mass grass-roots behavior change is naive and misunderstands complex social system dynamics. They complement and feed one another, and you cannot have one without the other. As Roland Kupers, a complex systems science expert, has argued:

“If governments woke up and ordered climate action, I’d be all for it. It’s just that it simply is not happening. My argument is that there are other ways of combining small government interventions with bottom-up dynamics to create non-linear change.”

And while we’ve seen greatly improved momentum this past year with the passing of the US Inflation Reduction Act and the Australian government’s legislating of a more ambitious emissions reduction target, progress by the largest stakeholders is simply too slow. There are plenty of examples of adverse national government policies and subsidies locking in decades-long new fossil fuel projects and incumbent fossil-fuel heavy infrastructure, which scientifically, simply must not go ahead if we are to stay within the world’s rapidly diminishing global carbon budget.

Our society, in its attempts to decarbonize, forms a complex dynamic network system comprised of innumerable, interconnected points: from smaller nodes to larger hubs.

The biggest hubs in the network, like national governments and huge corporations, are often the hardest to move. The force required to change their behavior is immense, and they typically can only change very slowly and very little at a time, due to huge inertia and inflexible path dependency.

We’ve seen proof of this after over 40 years of intense campaigning for climate change mitigation reforms in Western countries. It’s the same problem with locked-in carbon-intensive infrastructure. It’s very hard for incumbent entities to adopt radical change when they profit from, own or are heavily incentivised to protect and expand this infrastructure.

However, there are other points in our network also worthy of our attention: 8 billion tiny, individual nodes, like you and me. We aren’t subject to the same forces restricting the bigger hubs. We can make more immediate changes in our own lives by adopting the alternatives available to us – like rooftop solar installation with batteries, electric vehicles, dietary changes, home food waste composting systems and micro food production, and reducing our consumption of non-essential consumer goods in favour of repairing and reusing what we already own and by growing the market power of circular economy, zero emissions businesses.

Global climate institutions like the UN IPCC have started to recognise the huge influence these individual actions can have when we add them up. In a recent report they identified that demand–side climate change mitigation (i.e. people and actors in the system reducing consumption and changing their demand for emissions-intensive products and services en masse) could account for between 40-70% of the global emission reductions we need. That is a massive amount.

The current, popular narrative which angrily craps on individual action and labels it as piecemeal, marginal, a distraction, or an insidious conspiracy-driven guilt trip from oil giants to avoid taking responsibility for themselves, creates a very counterproductive false binary. One in which millions of regular people who would otherwise be taking action in their own lives with genuine climate impact are instead incapacitated by rage, antipathy or anxiety, directed outwards towards those worst or biggest actors in the system who refuse to or are incapable of quickly mandating the top-down reforms society needs to reduce emissions at the pace required.

Everything we’re now seeing strongly emphasises that our own actions can and do have an enormous impact when measured collectively. Individual behavior change makes up collective behavior change, and it is clearly a prerequisite if we wish to prevent 1.5° to 2° degrees of global warming. When your unit of analysis is civilisations, or swathes of people, individual actions that reduce consumption of emissions-intensive goods and services are absolutely critical.

There’s so much contained in this topic I could write a book on it, but in lieu of that you can have a listen to a recent podcast interview I did with A Positive Climate, a great solution-focused podcast in the top 15 tech podcasts in Australia at the moment.

In my next newsletter I’ll touch on another part of individual climate action that makes it so critically important – that it is socially contagious and can create rapid, non-linear cascading societal changes.

What do you think? Does reading this make you feel better or worse about our current climate predicament? Can you see the logic in my argument or is it your view that I’m a painfully misguided, pro-consumerist shill hoodwinked by oil giants? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks for reading,

Lily Dempster is an environmental advocate and the CEO and Founder of climate tech startup and consumer mobile app One Small Step. She was formerly GetUp’s Market Impact Director, where she ran consumer campaigns helping people switch to zero carbon products online.

This opinion piece was first published in a One Small Step newsletter and then on It is republished here with permission from the author.

One Small Step’s mission: decarbonise humanity.
Switching to a greener Super Fund can make can be the biggest change you make to your
carbon footprint, even with a just small amount in superannuation savings.

Surf coast footprint calculator

The Surf Coast Energy Group (SCEG) has launched a simple to use online tool for Surf Cost residents to check where and how much impact they have on our part of the world, and to take action in the most important and personally meaningful ways. The tool only takes about 10 minutes to complete, starting with an assessment covering home energy and transportation use, waste production, food and water consumption. It calculates the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and reports the main challenges before suggesting a number of action “pathways” to lessen the impact.

The calculator has been developed with the backing of the Surf Coast Shire and has a distinct Surf Coast focus.

The planner is available now, free to use and can be accessed here:

The role of behaviour change: Secret Power of Lifestyle Emissions

→ Australian Financial Review – 11 February 2022:
How Australians can cut emissions – and save $5000 a year
“The electrification of households, powered by renewables, can halve energy use, fire up the economy and cut our living costs.”

Full transcript

Electrify everything: plan to run a suburb off renewables

The community group Electrify 2515 has so far convinced 1,500 local households to electrify their homes and run off renewables. Engineer Saul Griffith explains about the project in ABC’s Australian Story. He estimates that once the initial expense of electrification has been paid off, households could save $3,000 a year on their energy bills. By Saul’s account, 42 per cent of all emissions come down to decisions that are made in everybody’s homes.

“His ideas caught the eye of the US President. Now engineer Saul Griffith is making waves at home, joining his local community in an ambitious project to electrify their suburb and power it with renewables.”

→ Article on ABC News – 27 February 2023:
Rewiring Australia founder Saul Griffith is a man on a mission to electrify the nation, one suburb at a time

Three pieces of advice to accelerate climate action at work

If every employee can impact a company, and every company can impact the battle for climate change, then every single employee can (in a real way) influence the direction of the planet. For better or worse. Climate change is a huge, complicated, existentially scary thing, but we can all make a difference, no matter where we work

Kirstin Hunter is a WorkforClimate Ambassador, Managing Director at Techstars (NSW), former co-founder and CEO of Future Super, and a leader at multiple purpose-led startups. Here are her top tips for accelerating climate action at work.

Playing the climate numbers game

Misleading figures about ‘climate-friendly’ consumption – and how to spot them

By Damian Carrington, The GuardianDamian Carrington
Numbers matter. They can tell you, in undeniable terms, things you may not really want to hear. In the UK, beef farmers often talk about how climate-friendly their product is, compared to beef from overseas where forests are razed to create pasture. The problem is that, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, even the best beef is seven times worse than the worst tofu. Not too fussy about where your beef comes from? The difference is even more stark: the worst beef causes more than 100 times the emissions of the best tofu.

What about organic meat – surely that’s good for the environment? Afraid not: the cost of the climate damage caused by organic meat production is just as high as that of conventionally farmed meat. Why? Because organic livestock are not fed imported fodder and are often grass-fed, meaning they produce less meat and grow more slowly, spending longer emitting climate-heating methane before slaughter.

Ah, but surely eating local produce is helpful at least. Not if the climate impact of your food concerns you. As Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data reports, the transport of the food eaten in EU diets was responsible for just 6% their emissions, while meat, dairy and eggs accounted for 83%. As Ritchie puts it: “What you eat is far more important than where your food travelled from.”

Let’s move on from food. Recycling is good, like brushing your teeth, and we should all do it. But in terms of cutting the emissions driving the climate crisis, it’s tiny compared to, say, avoiding a flight. For example, you would have to recycle for more than seven years to match the emissions you would save by forgoing a single transatlantic trip.

Talking of transport, let’s look at electric cars. “Too expensive” is the frequent cry – and indeed the purchase price today is usually higher than a conventional petrol car. But if you look at the cost of owning and running an electric car over four years, it’s been cheaper than the fossil-fuelled version since at least 2017 in the UK, US and Japan. That’s because of lower fuel costs, depreciation and taxes, as well as subsidies. Yes, electricity prices have risen recently. But for the majority of UK drivers, who charge their cars at home, it’s still half the price they would pay for petrol or diesel per mile.

What about all that lithium you have to mine to make the batteries? All mining can be environmentally destructive, of course, and all steps should be taken to minimise this. But it’s perverse to worry about lithium mining while ignoring the 99.99% of metal mining that is not lithium. The same goes for the rare earth metals needed for renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines: they make up 0.006% of all metals mined.

Furthermore, electric cars and renewable energy are being used to replace the colossal amounts of fossil fuels that are being mined and drilled at enormous environmental cost. Ritchie also puts this well: “We will need to mine millions of tonnes of minerals to transition to low-carbon energy. But we’re currently mining billions of tonnes of fossil fuels every year.”

While we’re on energy, let’s talk about that old canard about wind turbines and birds. According to US data, wind turbines have killed about 234,000 birds a year. Sounds like a lot and care should certainly be taken in choosing wind farm sites. But it’s tiny compared to the mass cull by cats, which killed 2,400,000,000, or about 10,000 times more. The data is from 2013, since when wind power in the US has roughly doubled. So cats are still killing roughly 5,000 times more birds than wind turbines (and there are some simple things you can do to curb your cat’s killer instincts).

Of course, numbers are not everything. Fighting environmental crises requires taking on vested interests and social injustice in a difficult geopolitical world. But when working out the most effective actions to champion, running the numbers certainly helps.

~ Excerpt from The Guardian’s newsletter ‘Down to Earth’ on 23 February 2023

If SUVs were a country, they would rank as the sixth most polluting in the world

The increased number of SUVs in 2022 were responsible for a third of the increase in global oil demand.

→ The Guardian – 1 March 2023:
Carbon emissions from global SUV fleet outweighs that of most countries
“Popularity of sport utility vehicles driving higher oil demand and climate crisis, say experts.”

A climate activist in the United Kingdom punctures SUV in July 2022