Turn off lights Reduce the amount of meat you eat. Walk to work. Fly less. Buy less. Recycle.
These are some of many solutions that have been popularized in the last decade to reduce carbon emissions. 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. The core of the debate is the simple question: How important does anything we do for climate change actually matter?
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint refers to the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere as a result of the actions of individuals, organizations, and countries. Two Canadian researchers came up with the concept of a footprint in 1990s to symbolize humanity’s impact upon the planet.
BP, an oil and gas giant, adopted what was then a confusing term a decade later. They made carbon footprints a part of a marketing campaign that cost them an estimated $100 million annually. They published full-page ads in newspapers like The New York Times, hung posters on billboards at airports around world, and ran TV ads asking viewers “What is your carbon footprint?” To make it easier for people to calculate their carbon footprint, they created a calculator.
They did this to shift responsibility for the environmental damage they caused onto the public. They were also extracting millions upon millions of barrels per day from fossil fuel companies.
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.”
What do plastic and cigarettes have to be related?
Fosil 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. The organization was funded by plastic bottle manufacturers who wanted to prevent regulation from addressing the root problem.
These tactics were then taken to the next level 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.
Is it really the fault of big business
ExxonMobil stated that it will work to decarbonize high emission sectors and invest in technologies that can help society achieve a netzero future.
The company stated that “Ultimately, changes to society’s energy consumption, along with the development of lower-emission technologies and the deployment of them, will be necessary.”
Shell and BP, two other fossil fuel companies, did not respond when asked.
According to a September study in the journal, these four companies are indirectly responsible for 11% CO2 and methane emitted from fossil fuels between 1965-1918. Energy Research & Social Science. Only seven companies are responsible for 20% of the emissions, along with the state-owned companies in 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 individual carbon footprints aren’t important in the grand scheme about climate change.”
This sentiment is widespread. People are urging people to take action by pointing out that a statistic that holds 100 companies accountable for 71% of CO2 emission has become a popular rallying cry. However, while these companies extract the oil and gas that generates those emissions, the responsibility of burning it is still shared by the people who purchase their products.
What can an individual action accomplish?
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 doesn’t have control over, like using more electricity from renewable sources or using cleaner technology in industry. Only 4% will likely come from individuals taking fewer trips to work or flying less.
The remaining 55% can be achieved through changes that require both government action and active consumer choice. 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 found to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2050, and can improve quality of life.
As people look to reduce their carbon footprint, plant-based alternatives to meat are becoming more popular.
Experts say that every action taken to reduce emissions has a greater impact on society than reducing the carbon footprint of one person. Companies have invested in better meat alternatives to make it easier for vegans to choose a plant-based burger instead of a steak, as a result of the rise in veganism. Individual action can go beyond consumer choices. Voting and putting pressure upon politicians can also lead to policy changes that change society.
People claim that their actions are “drops in the ocean”, and the system must change, stated Stuart Capstick, deputy head of the Center for Climate Change and Social Transformation, University of Cardiff, 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 W. Walker