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Do I have to feel guilty about my carbon footprint

Do I have to feel guilty about my carbon footprint

Oil rig workers in Norway

Turn off lights Reduce the amount of meat you eat. Walk to work. Fly less. Buy less. Recycle.

These are just a few of the many solutions that have been proposed over the past decade to reduce people’s carbon footprints. If people in rich countries changed their lifestyles, they would emit less greenhouse gases around Earth, which would prevent it from heating up to more deadly levels.

This may not seem controversial, but climate activists are increasingly dismissing personal carbon footprints as a distraction. Many scientists, meanwhile, see tweaking individual lifestyles as a vital step to changing systems. At the heart of this debate is a simple question: How important is anything we do to the climate?

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint is the amount carbon dioxide that has been released into the atmosphere by an individual, group, or country. Two Canadian researchers developed the idea of a carbon footprint in the 1990s to represent humanity’s effect on the planet.

BP, an oil and gas giant, adopted what was then a confusing term a decade later. They used carbon footprints in a $100 million annual marketing campaign. They ran ads in newspapers such as the New York Times. They also put posters on billboards at airports around the globe and ran TV commercials asking viewers to “What is your carbon footprint?” They created a calculator that would allow people to calculate it.

They transferred the responsibility for the environmental damage they caused to the public by doing this. They and other fossil fuel companies were simultaneously extracting millions of barrels oil per day.

Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard University researcher who studies the misinformation of fossil fuel companies on climate change, said that talking about a company’s footprint is the same as talking about a person’s. “The footprint literally embodies greenhouse gas emissions. It brings it down to the size of a human footprint.”

Oil rig workers in Norway

Oil and gas companies emphasize society’s contribution to reducing carbon emissions

What does plastic and cigarettes have to do?

Fossil fuel oil companies promoted the idea personal carbon footprints, individual action, and even lobbying to weaken regulations to limit pollution.

They weren’t the only industry to do this.

As early as the 1970s, the environmental group Keep America Beautiful made adverts that criticized people for littering and encouraged them to recycle. However, the organization was funded primarily by corporations that made plastic bottles and who opposed regulation to address the root cause of the problem.

These tactics were furthered by the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry tried to distance itself from the harm cigarettes cause by downplaying science and running ads that emphasized the individual’s “freedom of choice.” Doctors took companies to court and argued that the reason for deaths from heart disease and lung disease was because they had purchased their products.

In a study published in the journal One Earth, Supran and co-authors found that ExxonMobil targets individuals and downplays the reality of climate change.  “These patterns mimic the tobacco industry’s documented strategy of shifting responsibility away from corporations which knowingly sold a deadly product while denying its harms and onto consumers,” the authors wrote.

Two people in Pakistan smoking cigarettes

Fosil fuel companies used similar tactics as the tobacco industry.

Is it really the fault of big business

ExxonMobil, when asked if the industry is blaming consumers, stated to DW that it is committed to decarbonizing high-emitting industries by investing in technologies that will help society achieve a net zero emissions future.

“Ultimately, changes will be needed in society’s energy use, in conjunction with the development and deployment affordable, lower-emission technology,” the company said in a statement.  

Shell and BP, two other fossil fuel companies, did not respond when asked.

These four privately-owned companies, along with Total, the French oil giant, indirectly contribute 11% to the CO2 or methane emissions from fossil fuels burning between 1965 and 2018, according a September study published by the journal. Energy Research & Social Science. Only seven companies are responsible for 20% of the emissions, along with the state-owned companies of Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

“You and me contribute relatively little to climate crisis,” said Emily Atkin (climate journalist) who runs a newsletter that exposes hypocrisy within the fossil fuel industry. “Our personal carbon footprints aren’t really that important in the grand scheme about climate change.”

This sentiment is widely shared. People have become convinced that personal action is futile when they hear that 100 companies are responsible for 71% CO2 emissions. These companies may extract the oil, coal, and gas needed to produce those emissions, but the responsibility for burning it rests with the consumers who purchase their products. 

A worker installing a solar panel in Vietnam

Structural changes make it simpler for people to reduce their emissions

What can individual action do?

The International Energy AgencyIt is estimated that 40% of global economic emissions reductions needed to decarbonize by 2050 will be due to policies that the public has very little control over. For example, increasing electricity from renewable energy or using cleaner technology in the industry. Only 4% of these cuts can be attributed to individuals who take a more active role like walking to work or flying less.

The 55% remaining comes from government actions and consumer choices. That means with the help of subsidies and advances in technology buying electric cars, installing a heat pump or better insulating homes. 

This would require significant lifestyle changes in rich countries. A study published by the journal NatureThese solutions were discovered to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050 and improve the quality of life, according to November’s findings.

A vegan butcher in London, UK

People are increasingly looking for plant-based alternatives in meat as a way to reduce their carbon footprint.

Experts believe that any action taken to reduce emissions has more impact on society then reducing one person’s carbon footprint. For example, the rise of veganism has prompted companies to invest in healthier meat alternatives that make it easier to choose a plant-based burger over a traditional steak. Individual action is not limited to consumer choices. Voting or putting pressure on politicians may also result in policy changes that affect society.

People say that their actions are a “drop” in the ocean and that the system needs to change. Stuart Capstick is the deputy director of Center for Climate Change and Social Transformation at University of Cardiff in the UK. “Well, I respond to that by asking how will that system change. Systems can’t be changed unless people push for them.

Edited by Tamsin Walker

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