Individual Carbon Footprint vs. Industrial Emissions: Climate Change Death Match

When scientists talk about climate change, they tend to look at change to the climate caused by “natural factors” or by “human activities.” This is because there are factors that create change in climate that are natural – the cyclical melting and refreezing of sea ice, for example. The problem with the second term is that, outside of the scientific community, it can be seen as laying blame at the feet of the individual.

But how much can reducing our own personal carbon footprint really affect large scale climate change? The answer is, actually, not much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we all stop recycling and start tossing our Starbucks straws directly into the mouths of marine life. There are ways we can, and should, reduce our own waste.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems released a “Carbon Footprint Factsheet” for individual consumption. It suggests things like walking or biking, eating local, replacing beef consumption with chicken or a vegetarian diet. Move to a smaller house. Recycle. Purchase low carbon footprint items when shopping. Put solar panels on your roof.

And all of that is great. But it comes with a slight caveat; All of that is great, if you can afford it.

In 2017, David Roberts wrote a column for Vox titled “Wealthier people produce more carbon pollution — even the ‘green’ ones.” In the piece, Roberts admits to being skeptical of the role personal choices play in the fight against climate change. He talks about a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior in June of 2017.

The study, “Good Intents, but Low Impacts,” found “that individuals with high pro-environmental self-identity intend to behave in an ecologically responsible way, but they typically emphasize actions that have relatively small ecological behaviors.”

Or, as Roberts said, “to put it more bluntly: Rich people emit more carbon, even when they recycle and buy canvas tote bags full of organic veggies.”

While Roberts focuses on the ways the wealthy would need to drastically shift their lives in order to actually lower their carbon footprint, there’s another factor in climate change that simply has very little do with whether you eat beef or use a plastic straw.

CDP is a non-profit organization that runs a global disclosure system to measure and manage environmental impacts. All of the data is self-reported by companies, cities, states and regions.

In 2017, the CDP released a report that found just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported the United States as the second highest carbon dioxide emitter. They also said, between 1970 and 2011, carbon dioxide emissions have increased by about 90 percent, “with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase.”

Despite these numbers and the knowledge that industry plays the biggest role in carbon dioxide emissions, there aren’t a lot of large companies making commitments to change.

In April, Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization based out of Boston, released an analysis of the performance of more than 600 of the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S. across multiple industries.

Inside Climate News reported that the analysis found “64 percent of the companies have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only 36 percent have set deadlines for action.”

Only about a third of the companies have made commitments to transition to renewable energy.

The report acknowledges that “the financial sector has improved since Ceres’ last assessment in 2014, but more companies need to both acknowledge and respond to the business risks and opportunities posed by sustainability challenges.”

All of this isn’t a long-winded way of saying don’t recycle because it doesn’t matter in a grand scale way. The practices I mentioned earlier do contribute and, as Roberts puts it, “please, go forth and be green. You will be a better person for it.”

But when you’re participating in Meatless Mondays or using less plastic in an effort to lower your carbon impact, it’s also important to be aware that those things can only change so much. Industry and government standards can create more large scale change.

Which means voting carefully and consuming responsibly are key parts of reducing your footprint as well.

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