A deep dive into carbon footprints and who is responsible for making change
What is a carbon footprint?
A carbon footprint is basically a measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide (1). The reason scientists determine a carbon footprint is to bring awareness to the current emissions from creating the product or the impact an individual can have on the environment and then use it as a way to push industries or individuals to reduce their total emissions. Carbon emissions are a serious issue because the more these companies and individuals emit carbon dioxide, the more the planet warms causing other issues like ocean acidification, glacier melting, sea levels rising, and more frequent extreme weather events (3). According to scientists, in order to limit global warming from going above 2℃ or about 35℉, a point at which long lasting or irreversible environmental damage could occur, carbon dioxide emissions are needed to decline by about 25% by 2030 and reach net zero by about 2070 (7). Meaning reducing carbon emissions should be a major goal for everyone!
Ever since the term carbon footprint became popular, many organizations have come out with carbon footprint calculators that help individuals and families determine how much carbon dioxide they are emitting from their lifestyle and provide them with a list of ways they can work to reduce it. If you want to check how much carbon dioxide you emit check out this online calculator! You have probably seen ads or campaigns aimed at getting individuals to reduce their carbon footprint by making life changes like flying less, eating less meat, driving electric cars, or wearing less fast fashion, and many more (2). You might have also heard about the carbon footprints of different industries and sectors like agriculture or transportation, among others that are associated with high carbon footprints. But now that we are clear on what a carbon footprint is, who has a higher carbon footprint, individuals or the different sectors of the economy?
Who has a larger carbon footprint?
When we talk about the different sectors of the economy we mean industries like electricity production, food, agriculture, and land use, industrial work and factories, transportation, and buildings. All of these industries combined equate to about 90% of all global carbon emissions. Broken down even further, electricity production accounts for about 25% of emissions, food, agriculture, and land use is about 24%, industrial work and factories are about 21%, transportation 14%, and buildings equate to about 6% (6).
All of these industries combined contribute about 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere. Clearly, these sectors account for most of the carbon dioxide emissions globally and this makes the argument for more individual changes difficult. For the most part, we as individuals do not have control over a lot of these industries. Most people can't pick which type of energy their power grid runs on, what type of building they work or live in, or don't have a choice of driving a car when the city they live in doesn't have any public transportation (4). Seems a little suspicious that most of the blame gets put on individuals when these sectors are doing most of the damage. But before we get distracted, let's compare the individual carbon footprint to these different sectors!
The average American carbon footprint is 16 tons/year and the global average is 4.8 tons a year per person. Americans have one of the largest carbon footprints along with Canada, Australia, and oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. The top five things that contribute to this carbon footprint are having children, driving, flying, energy use, and eating meat (2). For individuals to really reduce their carbon footprint, they essentially need to do the opposite of those five things and even if they did all of these things perfectly, the average person would make almost no impact compared to the different sectors of the economy. If we compare the average American carbon footprint (16 tons) with the global carbon footprint of all of the global sectors combined (50 billion tons), the average American's contribution is about 0.0000000003%. Statistically that is 0%! So statistically one person's emissions may just be a drop in the bucket, but that is why we need as many people as possible working towards reducing emissions (4,6).
What can individuals do?
One thing we all need to start doing is talk about climate change! Many studies have proven the benefits of having open dialogue with friends and family about climate change and how it results in further discussions and adoption of scientific facts. This means that when you talk to your friends and family about climate change and the status of the environment, it persuades people to continue discussions with their social circle and do more research to be able to understand and talk about the issue more thoroughly (8,9,10). Another reason talking about climate change has a positive impact is because when individuals take action it encourages others to take action. An example of this is the Great Thunberg effect! Climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has become so influential due to highlighting environmental injustice, that people who are familiar with her and her actions are more likely to take collective action to reduce global warming (11). Many studies have shown similar impacts and other studies have also discussed how making something a social norm pushes other people to take action (12). An example of this would be recycling! Eventually recycling became a social norm and now it is pretty taboo to not recycle. Just imagine what we can do if we make all environmentally friendly habits a social norm! By influencing just a few people we can start a chain reaction of change and passion for fighting for the environment. Instead of shaming others for not bringing a reusable bag or not composting all of their food scraps, we need to be encouraging others to try and make changes that fit their lifestyle and work to create a more united front that we can use to push corporations and policies that can make real lasting change.
Another great way for individuals to fight against climate change is to get involved in any way they can. There are so many opportunities out there to get involved either through volunteering or working for an organization that is pushing for larger change. And if you have always wanted to get involved, but don't know where to start, try this exercise that the hosts of the podcast How to Save A Planet by Gimlet media mentioned on their episode on carbon footprints. Think about what you are good at, what issue you want to target and feel passionate about, and what brings you joy. At the intersection of all of these questions you will be able to find an organization that is the right fit for you and that would benefit from your specific skill set. And if there isn't one that focuses on the issue you're passionate about, you can start one! Pushing for environmental change doesn't have to become your full time job but if you can volunteer or do things after work to get involved you can make a big difference. Remember, a team of people will always be better than one individual when it comes to fighting these corporate systems that are responsible for so much environmental damage.
Even though it may not seem like the changes you have made in your own life are making that big of a difference, just know that you could be inspiring people all around you to make similar changes, spreading positive change everywhere. So if you love vegetarian cooking, Instagram or blog about it and bring others along. If you have time to get involved in local environmental organizations or join campaigns to get more bike lanes in your neighborhood. Do that instead of worrying about every single lightbulb in your house that isn't LED or that you forgot to bring your reusable bags to the store that one time. Every action can help reduce the global carbon footprint, but if you are able to push corporations or change policies by doing something you are passionate about and enjoy, that can make a huge impact!
- Wiedmann, T. and Minx, J. (2008). A Definition of 'Carbon Footprint'. In: C. C. Pertsova, Ecological Economics Research Trends: Chapter 1, pp. 1-11, Nova Science Publishers, Hauppauge NY, USA. https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=5999.
- Jones, C. M., & Kammen, D. M. (2011). Quantifying Carbon Footprint Reduction Opportunities for U.S. Households and Communities. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(9), 4088–4095. https://doi.org/10.1021/es102221h
- Jackson, R. (n.d.). The Effects of Climate Change. Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Retrieved May 7, 2021, from https://climate.nasa.gov/effects
- Hawken, Paul. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. , 2017.
- Summary for Policymakers—Global Warming of 1.5 oC. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/
- Goldberg, M. H., Linden, S. van der, Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2019). Discussing global warming leads to greater acceptance of climate science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(30), 14804–14805. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906589116
- Heald, S. (2017). Climate Silence, Moral Disengagement, and Self-Efficacy: How Albert Bandura's Theories Inform Our Climate-Change Predicament. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 59(6), 4–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.2017.1374792
- Geiger, N., Swim, J. K., & Fraser, J. (2017). Creating a climate for change: Interventions, efficacy and public discussion about climate change. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 51, 104–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2017.03.010
- Sabherwal, A., Ballew, M. T., Linden, S. van der, Gustafson, A., Goldberg, M. H., Maibach, E. W., Kotcher, J. E., Swim, J. K., Rosenthal, S. A., & Leiserowitz, A. (2021). The Greta Thunberg Effect: Familiarity with Greta Thunberg predicts intentions to engage in climate activism in the United States. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 51(4), 321–333. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12737
- Wolske, K. S., Link to external site, this link will open in a new window, Gillingham, K. T., Link to external site, this link will open in a new window, & Wesley, S. P. (2020). Peer influence on household energy behaviours. Nature Energy, 5(3), 202–212. http://dx.doi.org.proxyau.wrlc.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0541-9