What Your Parents Don’t Know About Climate Change

By: Ira Welz

It’s time to speak about the less known climate change facts. I noticed, the typical form of climate change news in popular media follows a certain structure: Huge number as the headliner, followed by information about one certain topic. However, the beauty and interesting consequences of these numbers is taking it apart and setting it into context. I have decided to discuss four common misconceptions your parents probably have about climate change so that you can counter them during kitchen table discussions about climate change. 


Fact 1: Online Shopping is more environmentally friendly than local shopping. 

Where misconceptions about this come from: Probably the picture of empty packaging material, stacked all over in the garage, or negative reports on TV about big e-commerce stores, with questionable ethics. 

In reality, various studies have found that online shopping is more environmentally friendly than in-store shopping, for example this MIT study from 2013.  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development funded another study about this, yielding the same result. 

Picture this, oversimplified, but understandable, example. 

If everyone goes to the store, most average American families would take their car and drive there, twice to get there and back, causing 8 drives in my example. If they all shopped online instead, only 2 drives by the delivery driver would be necessary for the same result. 

Does that mean you should start online shopping now? Well, yes and no. As always, there are restrictions on these effects. If you only shop online, yes. If you mix online shopping and in store shopping and just increase your consumption, no. Furthermore, one-day and other types of fast delivery are also excluded from this rationale. If you live in a city, where you can go shopping without using a car, the results change too. Anyway, there is a good chance your parents didn’t know this. 


Fact 2: You won’t save the world by flying less: Cars are 272% worse in terms of shares of carbon emissions

My parents love to criticize me for the amount of planes I take. I haven’t lived in my home country for quite some time now, so I am required to cross the world at least twice a year. But, I don’t own a car. Now, guess how much of a share aviation emissions have of total U.S. emissions. It’s 2.61 % according to the EPA. 

That means, even if everyone would stop flying from now on, almost none of our climate problems would be instantly solved. Cars and trucks, however, have a total emission share of 23.78%. That’s more than a fifth, what would make a very significant difference for the world if cut completely. If we only consider private cars, private car owners are responsible for 17.11 % of total emissions shares. Think of that and how this is worse than the current aviation share by 272% whenever you drive. 


Fact 3: The products you consume are still way worse than your car, in fact, 252%

Using the calculation from above, we can derive an even more important number: The greenhouse gas share from products we consume every day. What do you guess that share is compared to your private transportation?

Approximately 52.28% of emissions are linked to products you consume, excluding food.  

Compared to this, your transportation makes up only 20.72 %. That is less than half.  Even when including the heating emission share you are responsible for, 16%, this is far below the emissions the products you consume cause at 37.72 %. All in all: Your parents probably did not know that even worse for the planet than their cars are the products they consume every day. 


Fact 4: America’s population has a far worse per capita carbon footprint than China.

Misconceptions about this topic are the most understandable to me, but also most dangerous. I’m certain, the idea that climate change is mostly influenced by the Chinese population, stems from graphs like these:

I am sure you have seen these very often in your life. Country charts with absolute numbers are the media’s news favorites. Due to this, these graphs are not always carefully interpreted. Please have a look at this graph and pay special attention to magnitudes. 

China has more than four times as many inhabitants as the United States does. Let’s assume, the Chinese and American population would be completely identical. Then, they would have the exact, 1:1, Per capita numbers. This graph would not look very shocking or interesting. Now, depicting the same information in an absolute, aggregate country graph, China’s number is four times larger than the one from the U.S. It is important to keep this in mind when comparing such graphs. They only show differences in the Chinese and American population if China is significantly above or below 4x the U.S. value. If they are the same, China’s population is drastically different compared to the US population! Per capita graphs are easier to interpret and much more comparable due to this. Using this general information on the Co2 topic, we arrive at this graph: 

An average American emits more than twice as many Co2 emissions than an average Chinese person. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, this can be considered a more meaningful number, than absolute numbers. In a world of fairly calculated greenhouse gas emissions, every person is entitled to emit the same amount of emissions. So naturally, China would be entitled to produce more than four times more emissions than the United States. That’s why one can certainly argue that climate change is a global issue, the whole world population has to work on. But when it comes to analyzing population lifestyles, where cuts are most needed, listing the 5 biggest polluting countries based on per capita emissions certainly helps in evaluating China’s pollution position less biasedly. 

I hope you are ready for the next discussion with your parents now! 

Did these facts surprise you, too? I would certainly be happy to know it in the comments! 

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