With the overwhelming urgency to take action to mitigate climate change, it’s easy to feel that anything individual people do to reduce their own carbon footprint doesn’t actually accomplish anything meaningful in the big picture.
When you hear calls to action to make changes in your own life, you may respond with skepticism of the intentions of those delivering that message. You might even ask why the responsibility falls on you personally to eat less of some your favorite foods or spend a little more time getting to work. Why should you have to think about which bin you are supposed to throw your trash into? None of it really makes a difference anyways, right? The answer is that individual participation in sustainable practices can make absolutely matters, and it works in a number of ways.
1. Individual Consumption Increases Demand
Although a lot of progress has been made through technological advancements and higher building standards, individual behaviors and business practices are still major factors in global greenhouse gas emissions. Until all energy around the world is emissions-free, when you buy something it creates a demand for energy that is likely filled by a method that produces carbon emissions.
The most ambitious plans estimate it will take until 2050 for the U.S. to reach 100% renewable energy. This means that saving energy will save carbon emissions for decades to come. Even if your local energy supply is 100% renewable, if the factories that produce the products that you buy get their energy elsewhere, emissions are produced.
In fact, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced across California are doubled when consumption is factored in. By not addressing consumption, we are leaving half of our emissions on the table.
2. Not All Technology Is Accessible
LED lights are affordable and last longer than traditional light bulbs, but the majority of sustainable technologies are not nearly as widely accessible or affordable. For example, even though more and more people are buying electric cars, especially in places like the Bay Area, the vast majority of cars sold today are traditional fossil-fuel burning cars. Not everyone can afford to buy an electric car, and because the technology is still so new, used electric cars are difficult to find. So although the technology is available, many people are easily priced out of using it.
Across the board companies generally use the environmental benefits of a product to justify charging a higher price, which becomes in effect a tax on doing the right thing. Over time, the price of these products may fall, but the general public has to wait 10 years for new technologies to become as affordable as their high-carbon counterparts. If this pattern continues, putting all of our faith in technology to solve climate change will clearly not enough to mitigate emissions enough to keep climate change at a manageable level.
3. Individual Behavior Can Offset Technology
According to a case study comparing per capita emissions between dense urban areas in Helsinki and suburban areas, individual behavior not only makes an impact, but that impact can actually offset a significant portion of the gains made through infrastructure and contextual upgrades.
People who live in dense urban areas are often thought to produce less greenhouse gas emissions because they are much more likely to take public transit, and require less energy to heat and cool their homes. However, this study shows that in fact the opposite is true. Because the culture of urban areas is based more around consumption, they have a higher carbon footprint per capita despite the savings achieved through density.
This suggests that if we turn a blind eye to the impacts of individual behavior and rely completely on the promise of technology to solve our climate problem, we may end of producing more greenhouse gas emissions.
4. The Power Of The Influencer
I’ve heard people liken people making individual changes to reduce their carbon footprint to making new years resolutions, trying make the point that we shouldn't ask individual people to make changes at all. New years resolutions are, of course, notorious for their high failure rate, suggesting that because individual commitments are not reliable so they should be forgotten.
But this metaphor ignores the power of influence and culture, which people more recently understand in the context of social media. Instead, think of individual changes as a part of a cultural shift. The power of the individual lies not only in the changes that they make in their own life that reduce carbon emissions, but in the wider social and cultural reinforcement of sustainable choices as a non-political norm. In other words, part of the power of an individual making a change is the social proof it provides to others.
Today, people who take steps to reduce their carbon footprint don’t get consistent social feedback from their peers. The effect of this inconsistent social feedback in many cases is that people are more likely to feel that a sustainable choice that does not directly save money is a solely personal resolution.
In general, mosts people really just want to fit in and do what other people are doing. Even in the most environmentally focused organizations, the pressure to be seen as fitting in is often is more powerful than an individual's personal commitment to making sustainable choices. This is why providing social proof for carbon-reducing lifestyles has the power to change many people’s behaviors.
Sarah Schwartz is the lead consultant for Office Climate Solutions. She writes about the intersection of sustainability, business, and the workplace.