Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

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