Fighting climate change takes collective action, but starting with your own carbon footprint can make a difference
If you’re so inclined, you can calculate your carbon footprint for just about any activity quickly and easily. For the eco-conscious, it can help in deciding what to buy and what to eat to feel like you’re making a difference. An electric car, a hybrid, or just one with better gas mileage can reduce your personal emissions total. A change in diet, even just skipping meat one day a week, can go a long way.
Soon enough you’re composting in your backyard and feeling pretty good about yourself. Then, you read that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions and you think to yourself, “Is what I’m doing worth it? Is it even making a difference?” The answer, unfortunately, isn’t as straightforward or one you can get the immediate results of. It speaks to the issue of whether enough individual action adds up to collective action that changes the world.
First off, if you are looking to lower your carbon emissions, calculators and handy guides can make the complex web of decisions that goes into a lower-emissions lifestyle much easier. For instance, while buying your food from local vendors thus cutting down on your personal food transport emissions could save the equivalent of 1,000 miles driven in a gas-powered car, the more simple act of switching to a meat-free meal once a week saves 1,160 miles driven. And you don’t have to spend hours researching to figure out where your food came from. You don’t even have to ditch meat altogether. You could switch some meals from beef to chicken, the raising of which results in 7.2 times fewer emissions per kilogram than beef.
There are simple things you can do as an individual to curb emissions. Just getting rid of your two-stroke-engine leaf blower can make a world of difference. If working from home is an option for you, do that whenever you can rather than commuting to the office. Take public transportation when you can. Plan your grocery shopping so you waste less food. Do the thing that was probably drilled into your head as a kid and turn the light off when you leave the room. Stream through a smart TV rather than a game console, which is less energy-efficient. Use a laptop rather than a desktop computer, a handy tool for the era of hybrid work anyway.
There are no doubt huge changes that go into fighting climate change, and the sheer immensity of the problem can seem overwhelming. But on an individual basis, there are plenty of small changes people can make that significantly lower their carbon footprints.
But wait, you say, those 100 corporations, many of them fossil fuel companies, that have contributed more than 70% of the emissions of the last several decades have way more of an impact than I ever could. In fact, it was an oil company that popularized the concept of the carbon footprint. They’re trying to shift their problem onto the little guy!
There’s obviously some truth to that. However, those big corporations became big corporations in large part because a lot of people bought their products.
“But to be clear, it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide,” Climate Accountability Institute co-founder Richard Heede told Vox. “The companies may have some responsibility for their product — for lobbying in favor of the carbon economy, and for getting subsidies and arguing for subsidies — but some responsibility ought to fall on individuals, households, and corporations. What the companies do is produce the fuels, extract and market the fuels, so that we can use them. It’s the consumers that produce the carbon dioxide: They may be corporations, airlines, shipping lines, households, utilities. It’s all distributed.”
There might not have been a lot we could do about it in the past. Nobody was making electric vehicles and the average person didn’t really know about climate change a few decades ago. Certainly when the internal combustion engine became the driving force of our economies and everyday lives, we didn’t fully grasp the harm that came along with it. We didn’t know the impact cattle farming had far beyond the farm. But we know better now, and we know the urgency of the situation.
We can buy different products. There are large, influential companies that are members of the RE100, committed to switching over to 100% renewable energy. We can vote with our pocketbooks.
Here, though, we run into a problem. The collective action problem, to be precise. Fixing climate change would be to all our benefit individually and to the benefit of humanity as a whole. But there are competing interests. Some people benefit in the short term from actions that increase carbon footprints. That ranges from companies whose entire business is fossil fuels to people who just need a car or a two-stroke motorbike to get to work and make enough to put food on the table.
As the philosopher David Hume put it in “A Treatise on Human Nature” nearly 400 years ago: “Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and would lay the whole burden on others.”
It’s exceedingly difficult to get large groups of people to work together on a big problem. We’ve seen this play out in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as national governments met resistance from citizens who saw containment measures as too restrictive and as rich countries vaccinate their citizens before the rest of the world has the chance.
All hope is not lost, however. Individual actions are a start. We can make little changes, spend and invest our money with green-focused organizations. Companies want to make money, so if they see one way isn’t working, they’ll adapt. From there, we can get involved with communities of like-minded individuals and let decision-makers know what’s important to us. It will also take policy changes to make big changes, so yes, your vote matters and might be the biggest single action an individual can take.
“We have the most innovative, intelligent, compassionate humans on this planet that we all share,” Heede told Vox. “If we exercise intelligence and compassion, we will collectively help solve this problem — or at least avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer.”
Climate change is one of the biggest problems humanity has collectively faced, and it’s daunting. But a lot of little carbon footprints really do add up to a Sasquatch-sized print.