Around 60% of us think recycling and putting up solar panels are among the best personal actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, according to a 2023 Washington Post/University of Maryland climate poll. Turns out we’re wrong!

“I commonly hear people say that they recycle to help fight climate change, but there are many other things to do that more clearly reduce one’s carbon footprint,” says Rebecca Benner, managing director for climate programs at The Nature Conservancy.

There’s another common misconception, according to Sheila Bonini, senior vice president of private sector engagement at the World Wildlife Fund:It’s expensive to lower our carbon footprint.

“You don’t need to spend thousands on an electric car, rooftop solar panels or the latest energy-saving gadgets if those things aren’t realistic for you,” she says. “For most people, lowering your carbon footprint will actually save you money. It’s all about making the most of what you have, so you use fewer resources.”

That’s not to say that recycling and installing solar panels aren’t worthy goals. But if you want to make the biggest difference in your carbon footprint, here are the winners.

Travel Less

Air travel is one of the fastest ways to drive up a carbon footprint. One long-haul flight can account for between one-tenth and one-third of your yearly personal carbon dioxide emissions. That one flight is more than people in some countries generate in a whole year.

“Interestingly, however, plane flights are not always the worst culprits for carbon footprints,” says Benner. “Coming in a close second is driving solo in your car.”

While going car-free is unrealistic for many of us in the U.S., one-third of our motorized trips average less than a mile. If we all chose to walk or bike just half of those, it would be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road.

Eat Wisely

What we eat has a major impact on our carbon footprint. Because of differences in how and where foods are produced plus our varying cultural and nutritional needs there’s no one-diet-fits-all solution. However, Bonini says you can use certain tools to evaluate the impact of your food choices.

Meat and dairy are major contributors of greenhouse gases, coming in at around 14.5% of global emissions.

Giving up meat is a touchy subject, and one that isn’t even on the table for many. But Kelley Dennings, senior campaigner with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says cutting back portion sizes and incorporating more plant-based protein into your meals can make a big difference for the planet, as well as your own health.

Bank Better

“What do you think the biggest source of carbon emissions is for retail giant Amazon? Transport, probably,” says Ben Hardman, creator of Tiny Eco Home Life. “What about Google, PayPal or Netflix? Server power, maybe? No, these aren’t the biggest sources of emissions for these companies. Their finances are.”

That’s because many banks and pension providers invest corporate money and your money in ways that support the fossil fuel industry, deforestation and factory farming.

“The impact of your finances on climate and nature can be eye-watering,” says Hardman. “Together these industries emit immense amounts of carbon emissions, which is leading to the breakdown of natural systems as we know them.”

So switching to a bank that strives to be sustainable with its investments is a simple, yet immensely impactful way to create change. And while it’s not realistic to support only companies that reflect this sentiment, it does help to voice your concern to the ones that don’t. Consumer opinion is a powerful tool.

Save on Utilities

Heating and cooling make up most of our home energy use. And while we’re racing toward a renewable-powered grid, we’re definitely not there yet.

So to cut back on the fossil fuels that power our homes, Hardman recommends turning the thermostat down by one degree when it’s cold outside, and up by one degree when it’s warm. This can save around 10% of home energy use. “Multiply this across millions of homes and it’s a serious carbon emissions saver,” he says.

Here are some other ways to reduce home energy use.

Waste Less Food

Food waste creates more greenhouse gas emissions (six to eight percent globally) than the entire aviation sector, and residential food waste is the largest culprit.

“So it’s an area where individuals can make a massive difference for the planet,” says Bonini. “Meal planning, preparing only what you need and freezing your leftovers are simple steps anyone can take.”

Avoid Single-Use Plastic

Beyond polluting our oceans, landfills and bodies, plastics contribute to climate change in every step of their life cycle.

Nearly all are made from fossil fuels like petroleum or gas. Plus, the energy-intensive manufacturing process burns even more fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to our climate crisis. If plastics were their own country, they would be the fifth-highest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world.

“Plastic is an incredible invention that has critical purposes, especially related to health and safety, but we make far too much of it,” says Bonini. “Start paying attention to your use of single-use plastic and cut out what you can.”

Buy Clothes Second-Hand

The fashion industry contributes around 10% of global emissions, and about 85% of all textiles end up in landfills.

“But that doesn’t mean you have to sport a minimalist wardrobe,” says Bonini. “Second-hand stores, both brick and mortar or online, are treasure troves with practically anything you could want. And if you’re looking for a special occasion outfit you’re unlikely to wear again? Try renting instead of buying.”

Voice Up

Advocating for better policies and practices is probably the most important thing we can do to lower our collective carbon footprint, Bonini says.

“From the hyperlocal, like working with your office to cut single-use plastic, to global, like calling your representatives to support climate-positive legislation, your voice is powerful,” she says. “Use it to let businesses and policymakers know you care about these issues and demand change.”

Allow Yourself Some Grace

Trying to cut our carbon footprint is not particularly simple, and can often feel overwhelming due to the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s common to lose hope, stop trying or feel guilty about not doing everything perfectly all the time.

“So do what you can and give yourself a little grace to accept the realities of the modern world,” says Bonini. “And while it’s true that one person’s actions will not significantly reduce our global emissions, it’s also true that collectively we can.

“The key is to do what you can, when you can, and be aware of how your actions and consumption habits impact the planet. Do the best you can and know that you aren’t alone in trying to do your part.”

About the Experts

Sheila Bonini leads private sector engagement at the World Wildlife Fund. She helps corporate partners create more sustainable global supply chains so consumers can make greener choices.Kelley Dennings, senior campaigner with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, creates programs and outreach initiatives to help with connections between reproductive health, gender equity, endless growth and the climate and extinction crises.Ben Hardman is a writer, environmentalist and the creator of the website Tiny Eco Home Life, a platform that helps people live more sustainable lives and reduce their impact on the environment.Rebecca Benner is managing director for climate programs at The Nature Conservancy, where she oversees TNC’s global work on natural climate solutions, clean energy and adaptation. She’s been with TNC since 2008.Read More