Discussions about the global climate crisis often break down to debates about who is responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. Arguments typically include fossil fuel companies, any companies, politicians, wealthy countries, or more generally, wealthy people. There’s truth to all this, but once those arguments are on the table, the important question is who can and should take action to decarbonize our world.
Governments have the potential to address the challenge at the necessary scale. We’ve seen powerful examples of this: the United States’ Clean Water Act cleaned America’s waterways; the International Montreal Protocol phased out CFCs worldwide and is healing the ozone layer; local and state governments are leading the phase out of natural gas; and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is expected to lower US carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. But governmental action can also be painfully slow. And the success of government leadership often depends on an individual’s response. For example, a government can incentivize clean technologies through tax credits but individuals and companies must purchase and install them.
Corporations also bear a huge responsibility and have an important role to play. A 2013 landmark study in Science Magazine found that 90 companies are responsible for nearly two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. Corporations have a pernicious tendency to try to absolve themselves from responsibility by overemphasizing the role of individuals and placing the burden on average people. Oil giant, BP, even helped popularize the personal carbon footprint concept. But the private sector has the potential for transformative climate impact as well, and some corporations are already significantly helping the world decarbonize. Amazon is the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the world, for example.
Ultimately, pointing fingers and placing blame misses a larger point, which is that decarbonizing makes everyone’s life more comfortable, affordable, healthier, and resilient, so we should take action at every level, not out of obligation but out of self interest. Wasting time unraveling the knotted threads of blame sidetracks us from getting our decarbonization on. Instead, we need a coordinated combination of corporate, government and individual action, something that Bill McKibben suggests is akin to World War II level mobilization.
Decarbonize Your Life is, at its core, a series about individual action, and we’ll point to lots of data and examples of how much household level action matters. One recent study found that 42% of global emissions are attributed to decisions we make in our homes, and another puts the number as high as 72%! But we recognize that emphasizing individual action alone can be problematic (one study found that if you encouraged people to turn down their heat, they had less appetite for a carbon tax). Individual action within a venn diagram of corporate and government action is what it will take to get us to a low carbon world. Later in this series, we’ll explore what it looks like for individuals to directly lobby government and corporate stakeholders to end carbon pollution and transition to a decarbonized world.
The Power of Individual Action
But for now, let’s look at a couple of historical examples of individual action spurring wider change: 1) Home planted Victory Gardens, during the World Wars supplied up to 40% of the produce in America and helped address global food shortages. 2) Freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins, children’s marches and voter registration drives helped bring about the end of segregation. 3) One book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, is often viewed as the ignition for the environmental movement. 4) Solarize became a national model for communities to install solar at a discounted bulk price and took off neighbor by neighbor.
When it comes to decarbonization, there are a number of ways individuals wield power. First, they can operate at a faster pace and experiment more than institutions can easily accommodate. This is crucial in the “timed test” of climate change where quick action is essential. When it comes to decarbonization, Rilke’s message above rings true–individuals can almost fully decarbonize today, while societies at large, like big ships, take time to turn.
Second, individuals can demonstrate what a post-fossil fuel lifestyle looks like. How can anyone advocate for a decarbonized society if no one is living that lifestyle today? Making the changes at a personal, human level proves which technologies and behaviors work and don’t and helps prepare the world for impending and necessary transformations. This individual demonstration is key to highlighting how decarbonization leads to better lives (a theme of our series) rather than sacrifice.
Individual action is also contagious and leads to collective action as neighbors, family and friends see the perks of decarbonization and want to get in on the action. Solar installation has a well studied contagious effect in which people who see their neighbors installing solar panels then want to do so themselves. This is also true with electric vehicles. After we bought (and even drove cross country in) our EV, over 10 of our friends and neighbors subsequently bought EVs which we like to take a smidge of credit for.
We’ve found that photos of EVs at scenic stops, like ours in Grand Tetons National Park, have a contagious effect when it comes to getting your friends to buy electric.
The Four Areas of Individual Impact
While there are many ways to slice and dice it, when it comes to breaking down a person’s impact and emissions reduction opportunities, we landed on four core areas for Decarbonize Your Life: 1) Home, 2) Transportation, 3) Consumption, and 4) Sequestration.
We rely on data from The Union of Concerned Scientists, which provides national averages for sources of individual carbon emissions. If you’re a typical American, your home accounts for 31.7% of your emissions; transportation accounts for 27.7%; and your consumption, a combination of purchases and food make up the rest at 40.6%. Our fourth area, sequestration is, of course, not a source of emissions, but an opportunity for an individual to address still hard to decarbonize parts of our lives along with all our historical emissions, so is a practical part of any decarbonization strategy.
Our favorite takeaway from this data is that with readily available home and transportation technologies, we can relatively easily eliminate emissions from about 60% of our lives. The big moves we’ll emphasize in this series are primarily in these two areas. We can then chip away at the remaining 40% related to consumption. The fact we can eliminate the majority of our emissions today is amazing news.
Household Demographics Matter
One more critical note about individual impact: a person’s wealth is directly tied to their emissions. While we believe everyone, everywhere, deserves the benefits of these strategies and technologies, low income people (and people of color) are unjustly burdened by climate change. This unfairness is compounded by the fact that wealthier families have a larger carbon footprint and thus a responsibility to do even more. This is true from county to country (US vs Anguila, which has the lowest global reported emissions) as well as household to household within a country.
According to the World Inequality Lab, in North America, the top 10 percent of income earners produce approximately 73 tons of carbon dioxide per person annually. The bottom 50 percent of income earners emit 10 tons per person annually. (The average American emits about 16 tons of carbon per year). For all these reasons, we believe people with middle and upper incomes have the greatest responsibility to decarbonize their lives and also the most opportunities for change. That said, many decarbonization strategies have a huge bang for the buck for people with lower incomes who want to save money and reduce emissions, so we must ensure everyone has the opportunity to decarbonize today. Towards the end of the series, we’ll highlight the scalable ways that governments and nonprofits can do more to bring these solutions to households with low incomes who have the most to gain from them.
Next week we’ll talk about how all individual actions aren’t created equal and the fact that 4-6 key actions can reduce a majority of household emissions. We’ll also outline our roadmap for decarbonization. Then we’ll dive into each of the actions in depth as we continue our journey towards decarbonization.
This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.