12 New Year’s Resolutions for Sustainable Living

From your diet to your buying habits to what you talk about with friends, what you do really does matters in the fight against climate change.

Climate change often feels like an insurmountable challenge: The whole planet must move away from fossil fuels and rethink how we live, eat and get around. But the path to net zero is not unlike a series of humanity-wide New Year’s resolutions — to try a new way, to follow through on change, and to unlock a different and better permutation of ourselves.

That applies on the individual level, too. Because we can all do better when it comes to addressing the worsening climate crisis — how just depends on the level of time, energy and money you’re willing to spend. Whether you’re looking to get up to speed on the problem or jump straight into solving it, we have you covered with 12 suggestions on where to start.

Talk about climate change

Rating: Easy

One of the easiest things you can do to help take on climate change is to talk about it: at the dinner table, at the bus stop, at the office holiday party. “The situation is so extreme that feelings will also be extreme,” says Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist by training and executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which supports disruptive activism. She recommends sharing those feelings with family, friends and neighbors — and fighting the impulse to be alone with one’s climate anxiety and grief.

“The fact that people aren’t talking about it makes it seem like they’re not worried about it. Well, they’re acting normal, so it must be fine,” she says. “The implication is: Just by leading your normal life, you are contributing to mass climate denial because people are looking at you and seeing that you think things are normal.”

Start a climate book club

Rating: Easy

If you’re still working out how you feel about climate change, or maybe you don’t know enough to feel anything, a good first step is reading about it. You might start with Grist reporter Jake Bittle’s The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, which details how America’s great climate migration has already begun. Or writer and New York University’s artist-in-residence David Lipsky’s The Parrot and the Igloo, which tours the long history of climate science, the modern era of climate denial and more.

Recent must-reads for anyone interested in climate change.

Hold on to your smartphone

Rating: Easy

Try ignoring the impulse to buy a new phone, even when the latest model comes out. Apple is calling the iPhone 15 a sustainability success: Its carbon footprint shrunk by nearly 30% compared to a company-defined baseline, there’s limited plastic packaging and multiple components are made from 100% recycled materials. But data from Apple show that 80% of an iPhone 15 Pro’s full lifecycle carbon emissions come from its production, which means the longer consumers hold onto their devices, the more emissions they help to prevent.

Eat leftovers

Rating: Easy

The World Food Programme estimates about 30% of food produced for consumption is wasted globally. Closer to 40% of food is wasted in the US, where households are the biggest source of waste. “When we throw food away, it’s sitting in a landfill and emitting methane,” a potent greenhouse gas, says Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

One good way to waste less food is also simple: Eat your leftovers. When researchers at Gallup and the MITRE Corporation surveyed the food waste habits of more than 9,000 US households for one week in mid-2023, they found those more willing to eat leftovers generated just 3.5 cups of waste per week, compared to about 6 cups on average. Households who identified as less willing to eat leftovers produced roughly 12 cups of waste. And if that’s not enough of a lure, do it for the money. Research suggests cutting food waste can save a household at least $1,500 a year.

Holiday dinner.
So many turkey sandwiches.Photographer: Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Start composting

Rating: Moderate

To level up your commitment to keeping food scraps out of landfills, consider composting. There are a few different ways to do it. Your city or municipality can collect your food waste if it has a program in place — some cities that do include San Francisco, Seattle and Boston — or you can drop waste off at a composting collection site. You might also try composting at home.

Once you figure out how you’re going to compost, the next step is learning what can be composted (i.e. banana peels, coffee grinds, orange rinds, eggshells) and what can’t (i.e. metals, milk cartons, tea bags made with plastic). Not all composting programs accept the same types of food waste.

Learn to spot greenwashing

Rating: Moderate

Consumers beware: More companies than ever are making dubious claims about their environmental bona fides to attract business. This practice is known as greenwashing, and it’s attracting growing scrutiny. “If you look across jurisdictions, from the UK to the EU to the US, even elsewhere to Asia, you get the very clear sense that legislators and regulators are doing something about this and want to be seen to be doing something about this,” says Jonathan White, a lawyer at the environmental law charity ClientEarth. In the UK, for example, regulators are starting to crack down on misleading corporate climate advertisements.

Here are a few tips to avoid getting hoodwinked: Be skeptical of certain climate jargon, such as “carbon neutral” and “CO2 compensated.” Watch out for vague terms, like “make a change” or “make a greener choice.” And interrogate comparative and superlative claims like “50% less plastic” and “the greenest option.” (Ask yourself: What exactly are they comparing the product to?)

Swap out beef

Rating: Moderate

Food systems are the source of roughly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans, and nearly 60% of those come from animal products. A major source is ruminants, such as cows and goats, which release methane during their unique digestion process and are linked to emissions via the clearing of land to raise both them and their feedstock.

“Ruminant meats produce about seven times as much emissions and use about seven times as much land as chicken and pork to consume the same amount of protein,” says Raychel Santo, a food and climate research associate at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “And they use about 20 times as much land and produce about 20 times as much emissions as lentils and beans.”

This means swapping out beef for other animal proteins or, better yet, for beans, legumes and other plant-based foods could be an effective way to bring down your own emissions footprint.

Swap out beef, pet edition

Rating: Moderate

If changing your own diet seems like too big of a resolution — or if you’re so amped you want to change the diets of the entire household — think about your pets. If the 163 million pet dogs and cats in the US formed their own country, its meat consumption would rank fifth in the world, according to a 2017 study. Now there’s a burgeoning industry devoted to shifting the diets of cats and dogs using climate-friendly alternatives, including plants and insects.

A dog is offered Wild Earth chicken broth made from lab-grown meat during a tasting event.Photo courtesy of Wild Earth

Get creative about cooling your home

Rating: Moderate

In the face of rising temperatures, air conditioning offers an effective and popular way to stay cool. But air conditioners also contribute to the climate crisis by adding strain to local power supplies, amplifying the Urban Heat Island effect and using refrigerants, which are themselves potent greenhouse gases.

Rather than cranking up the AC with abandon during hot days and nights, consider a gentler touch. Examples include making sure your AC is the right size, limiting cooking when the AC is on and using smart thermostats to help control when and how you stay cool. To keep your home cooler through design tweaks, consider external shutters (which are more effective than curtains or blinds) and climbing plants to add shading.

Get an electric stove

Rating: Challenging

If you’re looking to make bigger climate retrofits at home, consider starting in the kitchen. Replacing a gas stove with an electric alternative solves two problems at once: It cuts down on both emissions and dirty air pollution that can trigger or worsen asthma. Gas stoves can release that pollution even when they’re off, and households with gas stoves are routinely exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution, according to a recent study in Europe.

Unlike conventional electric stoves, which can be slow to heat up and cool down, modern induction stoves are fast, convenient and even sleek. “It’s better than gas at high heat, it simmers, the responsiveness is the same,” says Sue Bailey, a former Viking executive who for years helped sell consumers on gas. “There are so many benefits to it from the cooking side.”

Get an electric car

Rating: Challenging

If you’re planning on getting a new car, there’s never been a better time to go electric. The transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, which means bringing down emissions will involve replacing fossil fuel cars and trucks with electric alternatives. That transition is already underway: The US market has more than 50 unique models available, and the UK has more than 70.

To encourage the switch from internal combustion to battery power, many countries offer tax breaks tied to the purchase of an EV. In the US, there are also state programs that include paying drivers to turn in old polluting cars. The world’s largest EV market, China, offers manufacturer subsidies, local government rebates and widely accessible, government-subsidized charging stations.

The Ora Funky Cat EV Testing The UK's Love of Small Cars

Ditch the car entirely

Rating: Challenging

Sometimes, buying your own car may not be necessary at all. Consider taking public transportation, biking, scooting or even carpooling to work. Some companies even encourage making the switch. At Walmart Inc.’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, for example, the company aims to get 10% of its staff to commute by anything other than a single-occupancy automobile by 2025. In Culdesac Tempe, Arizona, a new community is growing that’s designed to be car-free. Meanwhile, developers in Charlotte, North Carolina and Houston are also experimenting with projects that intentionally exclude parking.

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