You’re concerned about climate change: do your choices make an impact?

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

You’re concerned about climate change: do your choices make an impact?

Why have individuals been slow to reduce their carbon footprint even when they have the financial resources and willingness to do so?Many of our assumptions around environmental responsibility fallshort of making immediate and meaningful change. Still, new research guides us with a framework to decide on individual, corporate, and governmental climate action.

Akenji, Lewis, Magnus Bengtsson, Viivi Toivio, Michael Lettenmeier, Tina Fawcett, Yael Parag, Yamina Saheb, et al. 1.5–Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All, 2022.

Heinonen, Jukka, Sarah Olson, Michal Czepkiewicz, Áróra Árnadóttir, and Juudit Ottelin. “Too Much Consumption or Too High Emissions Intensities? Explaining the High Consumption-Based Carbon Footprints in the Nordic Countries.” Environmental Research Communications 4, no. 12 (December 2022): 125007.

Leferink, Enar Kornelius, Jukka Heinonen, Sanna Ala-Mantila, and Áróra Árnadóttir. “Climate Concern Elasticity of Carbon Footprint.” Environmental Research Communications 5, no. 7 (July 2023): 075003.

The climate movement discourse has shifted from focusing almost exclusively on individual action to prioritizing systemic remedies at the societal, corporate, and policy levels. Organizations originally placed most of the burden on individuals to reduce pollution. The climate movement now primarily assigns responsibility for climate change to corporations and governments. This shift towards corporate responsibility, for instance, is evident in our discourse around recycling. While organizations once primarily made properly sorting recycling an individual obligation, it is now clear that recycling has minimal impacts on emission reduction, no matter how precise the sorting effort is. Furthermore, even when community members sort their trash, only a fraction is recycled. This trash crisis is a systemic failure, not an individual one. Such shortcomings have increased individual’s frustration with slow progress toward sustainability goals. Even though the climate movement has started noting that individual power is only secondary to the economic system, which is the real problem, new research shows that, until the government makes systemic changes, short-term individual action is still vital during the transition phase.

To keep global warming below the 2 °C limit set in the Paris Agreement, we must considerably reduce the average carbon footprint per individual by 2030. However, the obligation to reduce emissions lies primarily among more affluent countries with high per-capita emissions. Scholars estimate that if the wealthiest 10% of individuals reduced their carbon footprint by 90%, the poorest half could increase their carbon footprint two or three-fold without exceeding the targets set in the Paris Agreement. Two recent papers published in Environmental Research Communications investigate how to reduce the carbon footprint of the wealthiest. The authors in both papers focus on the Nordic countries, which are among the most affluent countries and have a range of high per-capita emissions because they emit multiple times the global average of greenhouse gases. Researchers of both papers set out to identify lifestyle elements that people can alter to reduce average footprints in Nordic countries immediately. The first paper is a collaboration of Nordic and Polish researchers led by Jukka Heinonen. This research analyzes the effects of different consumption choices on footprints. They identify that people must institute drastic lifestyle changes simultaneously to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal. 

With the current state of industry and governments, drastic and immediate reductions in consumption are needed from Nordic people to reach a footprint low enough for the Paris Agreement. Heinonen and his team show that lifestyles must change in multiple areas simultaneously. For example, it is not enough for someone to sell their car and become vegan. A person would also need to stop flying to reduce their carbon footprint below the Paris Agreement’s limit in carbon footprint. Such substantive requirements to meet reduction goals illustrate that we must fundamentally change our lifestyles to follow the Paris Agreement’s accords. Therefore, if individuals want to keep their core lifestyle characteristics the same, corporations must follow suit and make these lifestyles more sustainable.

Building upon these results, the researchers of the second paper investigate whether people who care about the environment pollute less. The authors found a noticeable difference in how caring for the environment relates to pollution in different types of consumption. From these findings, we can learn which policy changes are more or less critical in the short term.

The second paper suggests that the methodology used by researchers in the past has mistakenly led to the conclusion that income and carbon footprint are substantially related. Intuitively, if you have more income, you generally consume more. This intuition has inspired many scientists to analyze income and carbon footprint relationships. However, the traditional method to calculate this relationship assumes the average emission per dollar spent in a category. Imagine two passengers on the same flight from New York to LA. One paid $200 for their ticket and the other $400. Logically, they have the same carbon footprint from the flight, but the latter would cause twice the emissions according to the old methodology. When you spend money on a good, it is hard to imagine all the steps that went into making it—the materials extracted and altered, energy use and labor, and the cost of transportation. A thoughtful analysis must incorporate each step’s effect without relying too generously on the assumption that expenditure and emissions are inherently related.

Improving upon these traditional methods, the researchers used unique survey data on pro-climate attitudes. They foundthat people with higher incomes only sometimes pollute much more, and those who care more about the environment have relatively low emissions. The data shows that those with 10% higher incomes pollute around 2.2% more, and those with 10% higher concern for climate change pollute about 2.1% less. What’s more, there is a considerable difference between types of consumption. In particular, people with pro-climate attitudes are likely to eat less meat, use less heating, and use more public transportation. Counterintuitively, however, they fly much more. People who are 10% more concerned fly around 27.1% more. But most notably, although those with higher incomes consume more goods and services, people consume the same amount of goods and services no matter how much they care about climate change. Manufacturers may need to drive reduced emissions since those more concerned do not compromise buying goods and services. The results suggest that in other spheres, such as food, heating, and transportation, changes could be driven by personal motivation. Even with the potential for these actions to reduce carbon emissions,  people rarely make these low-carbon choices. Further research must address the knowledge gap between high-reward climate actions and people’s resistance to adopting them. 

These studies show that we must change our lifestyles as much as possible in the short term while working on long-term systemic changes. Better-off individuals must contribute considerably to reducing climate change by changing their behavior. But they also highlight the areas where motivation and income have little (or the opposite) effect, which are the areas policymakers and corporations should focus on. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is dire and time-constrained, and the solution requires both behavioral and systemic change. Many of us are idealists, believing that we may save humanity if we “just” change the global economic system. However, until we reach this elusive goal, we must change at least three fronts: policy, business, and lifestyle choices. Governments must enact ambitious, strict green policies that force corporations to alter their operations. And since governmental action is slow, corporations also must take on real corporate responsibility to get a head start. And while those changes are happening, those who are privileged and able must change their lifestyles. To increase motivation for significant change, we must design and implement bottom-up (grassroots) and top-down (governmental regulation) methods to activate lifestyle changes. This research, which decouples the assumption that income (or climate concern) and climate emissions are always correlated, encourages all members of society to consider shifting their behavior—to fly less often, reduce car travel, and eat less meat.

Ultimately, this research calls for individual action and for governments and corporations to be accountable for making measuring changes. Studies have made it apparent that human actions have severely increased pollution. It is fair for the humans who have contributed most to pollution to shift their behavior to reduce it. As we await systemic change, the science is crystal clear: lifestyle change has a climate impact, so we have a moral responsibility to make decisions that reflect this.

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