How can I reduce my carbon footprint? As sustainability researchers, we regularly field this question, from friends and family but also journalists. The answer is simple: cut down on flying, driving and eating animal products. Google is awash with the same advice and the science backs it up.
Of course, changes to our diet, travel and lifestyle are entirely necessary to avert climate breakdown. These are most needed in high income countries, given their disproportionate responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will finally dedicate – for the first time since its first report in 1990 – an entire chapter to demand side solutions in its upcoming sixth Assessment Report. The UK government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change recognises that society will need to change fundamentally for the UK to meet net zero emissions by 2050. And each individual can help this effort.
If you live in a developed country, not taking that one long-haul flight a year could reduce your annual carbon emissions by up to half. Going vegan can cut your food-related emissions by over 70%. And switching to a renewable energy provider can knock another sizeable chunk off your carbon footprint. But we’re still sceptical about whether these changes can really scale up to what’s needed.
To have any meaningful impact, measures to reduce carbon footprints require everyone adopting them. But even among the most well-informed people, there’s little evidence of positive environmental behaviour. Conservationists, despite their acute awareness of the ecological and climate crisis, have environmental footprints that are no lower than their colleagues in medicine or economics, for example.
Even if everyone adopts a low carbon lifestyle, we can only hope to influence at most half of the emissions linked to human activity, with the remainder being locked up in infrastructure, such as roads, airports, and buildings. A recent study found that with reasonable levels of adoption, green consumer actions could only reduce the EU’s carbon footprint by 25%. But the actions commonly taken to reduce carbon footprints – recycling, reusing bags and changing light bulbs – have little effect.
Instead of obsessing over our individual carbon footprint, we need to realise our collective power. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated this beautifully. In many places, people have surprised their own governments by overwhelmingly obeying lockdown restrictions and supporting their extension.
People who are healthy and to whom the virus poses little risk are isolating to protect the most vulnerable in their community. And it’s working. These individual actions are helping suppress the transmission of the virus and reduce the number of new cases. This shows how our individual actions can add up when they’re taken in solidarity with others.
Building collective power
The real culprits of the climate emergency have been eclipsed by individual guilt and blame. If we invested the energy we currently do in challenging each other’s green credentials into calling out how governments and businesses have derailed environmental action instead, we might be further ahead.
A recent report found 134 countries have commitments to reduce emissions over the next decade that are insufficient for limiting global warming to well below 2°C, as outlined in the international Paris Agreement on climate change. Building the movements to challenge and ultimately change this situation will be profound. Acting alone simply isn’t an option.
Even before the pandemic, recent history vindicated collective action by ordinary people. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunberg-inspired Fridays for Future have placed the environment front and centre in political debates. Electoral gains for green parties illustrate a new appetite for solutions to environmental problems.
Grassroots campaigns have pressured governments and corporations to honour their commitments on climate change. Legal action has helped advance the notion that a safe climate is a fundamental human right that must be respected in law. Calls for fossil fuel divestment have led universities, pension schemes and whole countries to abandon investments in fossil fuel companies.
Direct action, such as protests disrupting airport expansion, has stirred public support for scaling back major infrastructure decisions that would accelerate climate change. Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, announced after global protests that it would stop investing in companies that threaten the environment, such as coal production.
Individual action will only disrupt business as usual once we realise we are not one, but many. As we try desperately to flatten the coronavirus curve, we should reflect on how, through cooperation, we can do the same for climate change.
Oliver Taherzadeh, PhD Candidate in Geography, University of Cambridge and Benedict Probst, Felllow at Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, University of Cambridge