Do our individual actions matter when faced with global climate change?

There’s an argument that the collective action required to combat climate change is undermined by focussing on individual consumption choices. Encouraging people to think that responsibility for the environment involves choosing the right kind of teabags, drinking straws or washing powder distracts from the real culprits for emissions (corporations?) and the most effective levers of change (legislation?).

This view is buffered by the blunt logic that a single individual’s behaviour won’t affect the collective outcome. If I reduce my emissions, but nobody else does, then my efforts will have been in vain. If everybody else reduces their emissions, it similarly wouldn’t matter whether I did too, or not.

Diet seems like a prime example of a highly individualised choice. The idea that each of us can and should choose what to eat, and can do so for personal reasons, based on everything from taste to ethics, is widespread. A plant-based diet is associated with lower emissions than a meat-and-diary one, so seems appealing to anyone worried about climate and carbon emissions.

But, sings the critical chorus, if you change your diet, are you just allowing yourself to be distracted from the structural causes of climate change, seduced by an illusion that you can solve collective problems through fashionable lifestyle choices?

Dietary choice is also an example of something highly cultural, as well as highly individual. And food culture is changing. The number of people eating plant-based diets is increasing, as are the options for anyone who want to eat meat and/or diary free. Individual dietary choices take place within this context, and contribute to it.

So here is my question: Knowing what we know about the extent of our carbon emissions, and the reduction required in them, how consequential will individual changes in diet be? Are the ~5% of the UK population who are vegan substantially affecting UK emissions? If not, what percentage would need to be vegan to have a substantial impact?

So, speculating wildly (this is no rhetoric, I am mostly ignorant about actual carbon emissions sources and targets), if a timeline of our carbon emissions and target looks like this:

What does the contribution of human diet look like? Something like this?

And what are the possible projections if different proportions of meals are plant-based rather than meat-and-diary?

The answers interest me because they seem to suggest a bridge between seeing diet as a solely individual choice – and so one which suffers from the brute logic of the collective action problem – and seeing diet as a part of the collective response to climate change. Certainly effective action on climate change requires more government action, but it is also interesting to know how large an effect this particular individual choice could have.

Notes

Christian Reynolds has related work, which shows generational changes in diet, and a corresponding change in associated emissions: The greenhouse gas emission impacts of generational and temporal change on the UK diet

Further clues may be in here Zero Carbon: Rethinking the Future, from CAT.