In Defense of Carbon Footprints

Personal responsibility matters.

cyclists protesting
Cycling is a lifestyle choice that can lead to political action.

 Lloyd Alter @ Nathan Philips Square, Toronto

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Soon to be "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle" (New Society Publishers, 2021).

Most people's carbon footprints have been pretty small during the pandemic; people are not going out much, they are driving less, and hardly anyone is flying. As I wrote a few months ago, "We're All Living a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle Now." But I am still counting every gram of carbon I am responsible for, from what I eat to where I go to how long I am sitting at this computer. There are many who think this is silly and possibly even counterproductive; I have been arguing for years about this with my colleague Sami Grover, who wrote that the whole idea of carbon footprinting was a corporate plot:

This is actually why oil companies and fossil fuel interests are all too happy to talk about climate change – as long as the focus remains on individual responsibility, not collective action. Even the very notion of “personal carbon footprinting” — meaning an effort to accurately quantify the emissions we create when we drive our cars or power our homes — was first popularized by none other than oil giant BP, who launched one of the first personal carbon footprint calculators as part of their “Beyond Petroleum” rebranding effort in the mid-2000s.

Climate Scientist Michael Mann has said much the same thing in an article titled "Lifestyle Changes Aren’t Enough to Save the Planet," noting: "There is a long history of industry-funded 'deflection campaigns' aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals."

Now Kate Yoder of Grist has leaped into the fray, in a post titled "Footprint Fantasy: Is it time to forget about your carbon footprint?" In the light of everything that I have been researching and writing, I have to respond with a resounding No.

The article starts off with a discussion about BP's latest carbon footprint initiative, an app called VYVE that monitors emissions. Then she complains about BP, noting that "research shows that since the late 1980s, just 100 big companies — including BP — are responsible for about 70 percent of global emissions." The link points to a Guardian article about a report that first used this 70% number, that has been tossed around ever since. Elizabeth Warren used it in the presidential debates, complaining about the regulation of straws and light bulbs:

Oh, come on, give me a break. This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about.... They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70% of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.

According to the New York Times, those industries are "the building industry, the electric power industry and the oil industry." And it's true; they are producing these CO2 emissions. But we live in an economic system that is driven by consumption. I said it before:

It is too easy and simplistic to blame the building industry, the power companies and the oil industry, when we are buying what they are selling. Instead, we should be sending up some signals.

Yoder goes on to dismiss the effects of the pandemic on our consumption and uses it to demonstrate how little our individual actions mean:

This year, we got a taste of how far individual action might get us. As [the crisis] spread across the world, the ensuing lockdowns meant that a lot fewer people were flying around and driving their gas-guzzling cars. The drop in transportation activity led to a dip in carbon emissions, at least for a spell: The Global Carbon Project estimates that the lockdowns will put a 4 to 7 percent dent in global emissions this year. Not bad, right? Well, one recent analysis called the overall effect “negligible.”

Negligible? First of all, 8% is what we have to do every year between now and 2030 to hit our targets. Secondly, the reduction wasn't only from transportation, it was across many industries. Thirdly, BP lost $21 Billion. Giant fracker Chesapeake went bankrupt. Airlines went bust. American Airlines just laid off 19,000 employees. Dozens of clothing chains failed (the fashion industry is a surprising 10% of global carbon emissions). It was not their inability to produce that caused this, but our inability to consume, which transformed or destroyed industries and corporations around the world.

We have to keep doing 7 or 8% every year, and that means getting more people on board. This is not going to be easy. The big producers are doing everything they can to get us to always consume more; to drive F-150s, their politicians keep promoting sprawl and squeezing cities, meat has never been cheaper. For many people, lifestyle changes are really hard when these conditions are baked in. But that doesn't mean we don't keep promoting alternatives, demanding walkable cities and bikes, getting rid of fast fashion and pushing a greener, healthier lifestyle. Michael Mann thinks this is a mistake, writing in Time:

Individual action is important and something we should all champion. But appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live is politically dangerous: it plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians.

To which I can only respond, they already do. We have nothing to lose, and what are the options? Mann calls for "political change at every level, from local leaders to federal legislators all the way up to the President." Fine, I agree. Kate Yoder of Grist offers no suggestions other than that from William Rees, footprint pioneer, who thinks "it would help if the climate movement reclaimed the concept and took it out of the hands of oil companies," which we are trying to do here on Treehugger. Mark Kaufman of Mashable says:

It’s (relatively) simple. Voting for leaders who, among other things, have plans or strategies to slash the rampant flow of fossil fuels through the economy, mandate buildings that use less energy, and accelerate the electrification of America’s cars and trucks.

So simple, except 70% of the vehicles being sold today are SUVs and pickup trucks because that is what people have been convinced that they want to park in their suburban driveway, and politicians try not to mess with what people want. Or that electrification will take decades and we don't have time. Instead, we have to show them what we want by example, as Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman suggest in Slate:

Ask yourself: Do you believe politicians and businesses will act as urgently as they need to if we keep living our lives as though climate change were not happening? Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion.

My friend Sami Grover, writing in "In Defense of Eco-Hypocrisy, Again," is at first skeptical about personal carbon footprints, but then writes about an interesting example of how Amsterdam turned into a city where everybody rides bikes.

It's a known fact that the city was well on its way to a Westernized, car-centric model of development in the sixties. But residents pushed back successfully. Cyclists did that. And they did so using BOTH activism and personal lifestyle changes. But those changes were primarily important because of the role they played in creating wider, systemic change.
Stop the murders campaign
Stop the murders Campaign. Mark Wagenbuur -- BicycleDutch/Video screen capture

The Dutch didn't say, "I will keep driving while complaining that the government should make the car manufacturers build electric cars that don't kill kids," which seems to be what we are doing in North America. A large proportion of them, who cycled as a matter of lifestyle, basically took back the streets. Their lifestyle choices led to action and change. Or as Sami admits, we can "use specific, targeted lifestyle changes as a lever of influence, through which we can bring about broader, more structural change."

We need to vote for climate action at every level of government. We have to march for climate justice and we have to never stop being noisy, which is why I support the Extinction Rebellion and activist groups out there in the streets.

But in the end, I believe that individual actions matter, because we have to stop buying what the oil and car and plastics and beef companies are selling; If we don't consume, they can't produce. It makes a difference; I vote every four years, but I eat three times a day.