The six best climate-friendly behaviors Americans can adopt

August 23, 2022

New policy alone won’t solve complex environmental issues like rising sea levels and carbon emissions. We need individual action and buy-in from Americans. Many policies enacted over the years, like seat belt laws, 401k retirement plans, and voter registration, have required individuals to change their own behavior to maximize the policy’s impact. 

Climate policy is no different. The good news is that more than six in ten Americans believe they should be doing more to address climate change – but many don’t know where to start. Looking for the fast facts? Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment identified the six climate-friendly behaviors with the greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions in the United States.  

1. Purchase an electric vehicle   

The United States uses more refined petroleum than any other country in the world — most of which fuels transportation. Given that much of the existing U.S. infrastructure is built around passenger vehicle use, improvements to public transit alone will not decarbonize the transportation sector. Promoting the benefits of electric vehicles and encouraging new car owners to purchase them is a critical pathway to reducing passenger vehicle emissions.  

2. Reduce air travel   

The U.S. is home to the busiest airlines in the world, representing nearly a fifth of total air traffic. The amount that average U.S. citizens fly is highly segmented. Although more than half of Americans don’t fly in any given year, top fliers fly nine or more times yearly. If top fliers reduce air travel by just one international flight per year, it could significantly impact emissions.  

3. Eat a plant-rich diet  

U.S. residents consume almost four times the beef per capita as the global average. Consumers substantially underestimate the impact of their food choices on the planet. Actions like offering plant-rich options for school meal plans and integrating vegetarian alternatives into communities can help individuals become aware of the outward effects of their diets.   

4. Reduce food waste  

Americans waste over one billion pounds of food annually, contributing to increased methane emissions in landfills. One of the biggest causes of food waste is throwing out expired food that is still safe for consumption. Policymakers have an opportunity to provide better guidance for food labels and expiration dates rather than relying on food manufacturers who have mixed incentives.   

5. Purchase carbon offsets  

When making purchases, consumers tend to absentmindedly accept preset defaults (e.g., ‘standard’ shipping over rush delivery or requiring a consumer to ‘opt-out’ of something). If we want more individuals to be aware of their options to buy carbon offsets, we must make the option prominent during transactions. One way to help Americans purchase carbon offsets is for banks to integrate a carbon offset option with credit card payments. Companies could calculate the user’s carbon footprint based on purchases and include a carbon offset button on the monthly bill statement.   

6. Purchase green energy   

People often go along with the first option presented to them when making decisions because it’s mentally easier than actively choosing among multiple options. By defaulting utility customers to a green energy provider, we can help more Americans lower their carbon footprint without much effort. On a grander scale, numerous counties and cities across the United States are already defaulting their constituencies to green energy by committing to using only clean power sources. Burlington, Vermont and Rock Port, Missouri are two examples of communities that developed a strong sense of pride in their decision to power entirely through green energy.  

Behavioral science tells us that people change when they sense change happening around them. By adopting one or more of these behaviors, individuals not only reduce their own emissions but inspire those around them to change, too. Whether you park an EV in your driveway or share a plant-based recipe on social media, you can help shift social norms among your friends, family, and community.  

Read the full report 


Want to learn more about behavioral science for the environment? Join our community of changemakers at the Center for Behavior and the Environment. 


Photo Credit: Lauren Owens Lambert for Rare