Meaningful climate action requires consumer action, too



Climate action funding in the Inflation Reduction Act is a giant leap for humankind. However, we need small steps from each of us to prevent it from faltering.

The wheels of government turn slowly, as do enacting legislation and building infrastructure. It’s up to all of us to stabilize emissions in the meantime — as global warming continues to increase.

By incentivizing more wind and solar energy, electric vehicles and electric heating, the Inflation Reduction Act aims to cut annual U.S. emissions by 2030 to 40 percent of what they were in 2005. Its long-term goal aims to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century.

That’s huge. Although many critics call for earlier abandonment of fossil fuels, this is a big start. Nevertheless, decades will pass before a clean-energy transition is sufficient to counteract the warming attributable to the U.S. economy. To buy the time to get there, each of us must do our part to reduce the carbon content of consumer consumption.

And we can.

Achieving net-zero emissions by eliminating fossil fuel energy, widespread electrification, implementing carbon capture and new low-carbon technology will change the course of global warming. But those feats will take decades at best to accomplish.

Meanwhile, constructing new solar, wind, storage installations and infrastructure itself will release significant carbon emissions — upfront — before each installation provides a single kilogram of carbon gas reductions. Those emissions will add to global warming immediately. A decade or more can pass after installation for operating benefits to exceed construction emissions — embodied emissions. Only then will real benefits accumulate.

Ironically, this very solution to achieve net-zero in the decades to come will increase global warming in the short-term, a conundrum that must be addressed by reducing other sources of upfront emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly warned of our imminent need to stabilize emissions. If we do not, within this decade we will exceed the emissions allowable to maintain a high likelihood of holding temperature increases within the Paris agreement’s 1.5-degree Celsius cap.

Reducing fossil fuel emissions and electrification alone will not get us there soon enough, even if we were to meet our targets. Slowing the progression of global warming requires all of us to act — now — before it’s too late to make a meaningful difference. Until we approach net-zero emissions in the future on a global scale, emissions from fabricating everything we produce will likely determine our fate.

They are released daily. The fabrication of four materials alone generates nearly 10 billion metric tons of carbon emissions annually: cement, iron and steel, plastics, and aluminum. That’s a quarter of worldwide emissions.

Their further manufacture to consumer or construction products emits even more. Whether for a vehicle, appliance, electronics, clothing, houseware, or for construction, the purchaser’s choice determines the consequent emissions — from raw materials to manufacturing and interim transportation, no matter where they are produced or assembled.

Crafting or building with 10 percent less material can cut 1 billion metric tons of emissions annually within a year or two. That’s big! Whether from construction, vehicles, appliances or even toys, it quickly adds up.

It’s quite simple — reducing the volume of materials used to make things will reduce manufacturing emissions in their next production cycle. Smaller, lighter and less excess go a long way. Consumer choice drives demand and resupply. Consumers hold the key to timely and successful climate action, buying time for the net-zero transition to reach critical mass.

Choose the products you purchase with an eye toward less material. Better yet, have it made with wood or recycled materials. Wood sequesters carbon. Recycling means less material will be manufactured from scratch.

Even better, re-purpose or extend the life of what you have.

Consumer preferences can slow the pace of global warming within this decade, giving the Infrastructure Reduction Act’s climate actions a chance to make a difference — before it’s too late. It’s time for all of us to act.


The author has also written “Thwart Climate Change Now,” which published last year

Bill Caplan, climate change, Inflation Reduction Act, fossil fuels