Individual climate action matters

February 10, 2020 · 13 min read

Most people are still completely oblivious to their personal contributions to climate change. While the climate crisis can only be overcome with swift and bold structural changes and collective action, history teaches us that individual action play a critical role in achieving structural change. Knowing the climate impact of their daily choices can empower people to change not only their own behaviour, but also demand meaningful collective action. Knowledge precedes action, it’s time to make the climate impact of every choice accessible to everyone.

Never before have we quantified more of our daily lives. Yet most people are still completely oblivious to their personal contributions to climate change. If knowledge is what precedes action, one shouldn’t be surprised that the genuine motivation and desire of citizens, young and old, to transform our societies and economies to a more sustainable state has not yet resulted sweeping structural and economic changes.

Knowing the climate impact of our daily choices is incredibly hard. The required information is not accessible. When it is, it’s often confusing, unspecific and impersonal. This is a major cause of frustration when it comes to individual climate action - we are told to take responsibility, without being given the tools to do so. The lack of knowledge is also exploited by businesses and political actors to either uphold a facades of climate action - think airlines announcing they’re now “carbon neutral” - or try to stall much needed policies - like carbon fee & dividend - and stricter regulation. A common critique of the Friday for Future strikes is to point out the supposed ignorance and hypocrisy of protesters, who are themselves not leading low-carbon lifestyles.

Talking about individual responsibility and individual climate action has been quite unpopular until very recently. It was “common knowledge” that individual climate action was futile, even immoral - after all, only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Why not let them deal with it?

But even if - for the sake of the argument - one absolves consumers from any responsibility and puts all the blame on companies, how do you make them reduce emissions drastically? Should be easy, after all it’s just 100 companies.

The first thing you could try is to appeal to the social consciousness of those companies and trust that they will self-regulate and solve the issue by themselves. Just kidding, it hasn’t worked in the past and won’t work in the future, as those companies inherently are profit-seeking organisations. Next we could hope for government intervention, first item on the agenda: overthrow a global system of fossil fuel subsidies that has been going on for decades. Second item: Introduce a global carbon tax of at least 50$ per ton of CO2eq emissions, internalising adverse effects of climate change and bringing about unprecedented shifts in the global economy. Unfortunately not many countries have successfully implemented a universal carbon tax and those who have often still allow exceptions for carbon intensive industries. Taxes also face popular resistance due to the social impact of increasing prices of mobility and food - some poorly designed policies may end up hitting the poor disproportionately hard. Coupled with the fact that globally the richest 10% are responsible for 50% of emissions, non-redistributive carbon taxes are quickly becoming political impossibilities. What a lot of people in the western world tend to forget is that we are those 10%, it’s up to us.

It’s hard to judge how much of the dismissal of individual climate action is part of a genuine discussion about the most efficient strategies to fight the climate crisis and how much of it is people absolving themselves of any responsibility to act.

The debate on company vs consumer action exemplifies the two main dimensions of the debate on the importance of individual action. First, who has the means and capability to reduce emissions at a scale and speed that is required to avoid the most catastrophic climate scenarios and second, the question of responsibility - who is causing climate change and bares the responsibility to do something about it. The following section presents the case that individuals are both responsible for climate change and have a realistic shot at changing course.

Individuals are capable of creating impact

It is a common misconception that individuals can’t meaningfully contribute to solving the climate crisis. Paul Hawkens’ Project Drawdown identifies over thirty climate change mitigation strategies that are based on individual level behaviour change that could mitigate 20-37% of global carbon emissions until 2050.

Even with such evidence, the narrative of the futility of individual climate action persists. A common denominator of those who deny the need for individual action is the proposition of “simple solutions” that sound great as headlines, but lack practical application.

A recent story in Bloomberg suggested that all we need is 300 billion dollars to halt climate change. While this number is being called into question, Twitter was quick to point out that the wealth of the three richest people on the planet was enough to prevent the worst in climate change. Assuming this is true, it’s still not clear how that knowledge can turn into concrete climate action that is faster and more effective than starting with individual behaviour. In most liberal democracies, changing taxation and reallocating resources is a slow and tedious process that requires bipartisan consensus or a stable majority in favour of redistributive policy. And while this isn’t at all an argument against political participation and action - a necessity and in the long term the most important action individuals can take right now - there are other strategies individuals can take right away that can have a big positive climate impact. As consumers, they have the power to change the economic viability of certain industries and products - without requiring a majority of their peers to do the same . 800’000 people cutting back on meat consumption has a huge climate impact right now. In light of the little time we have to reduce emissions and avert the worst consequences of climate change, anything we can start right away should take priority.

The notion that individuals shouldn’t have to take action not only disregards the most effective individual climate action: political involvement, it also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of government. It’s ultimately individuals who change policy, it’s individuals that demand change. Framing climate change as a problem that big industries have to deal with and everyone else should ignore is dangerous, because these actors can only be held accountable through collective political action. However, reaching consensus necessary for big structural changes takes a long time, which is why individuals changing their consumption behaviour right now - while continuing to be vocal and demand political change - is not only a powerful signal, it has real world consequences that can accelerate the necessary green transition.

Who is responsible?

Even the authors of the report on the 100 largest polluters highlight that even though these companies are huge emitters, our consumption is part of the equation and consumers share at least part of the responsibility. After all, someone is buying what these polluters are selling. If you not only consider direct emissions but emissions that happen as a consequence of an individuals total consumption of goods and services - including public spending - the responsibility becomes much harder to deny. In the US, accounting for those indirect emissions increases the share of emissions for which households are responsible from 20% to 80%. If you pay for it, you are responsible. The reason this simple principle is even up for discussion is that globalisation has geographically separated consumers from the negative environmental and social consequences of their consumption.

In the age of global supply chains, the question of consumer responsibility has also become a battlefield of corporate vs civic interests. From poor labor conditions in the fashion industry to the environmental destruction of extractive industries, involved companies point to compliance with environmental and labor standards in the countries they operate - while sometimes actively lobbying officials to keep the standards low. The consumer is lead to believe that the ones responsible for change are local authorities and not them.

For individuals, the best strategy is again two fold - they should demand structural change, as citizens are doing in Switzerland - while taking responsibility for their own consumption. International trade could become a potent tool for climate action, coercing bad actors to comply with climate targets - as France has already vowed to do. Until climate accountability can be guaranteed globally, individuals are responsible to become aware of the climate impact of their consumption.

Assuming individuals both have the power and responsibility to act, why aren’t they changing their behaviour? In fact, many already are. Thanks to the Friday’s for Future movement, individual action is back on the agenda.

It’s already happening

Flygskam - a Swedish word that expresses the shame of flying - has slowed the rise in air travel in Europe. In Germany, year by year domestic air travel was down 12% in November 2019. Coupled with a record investments by Deutsche Bahn, the way Germans travel domestically could shift significantly in the next decade. At the same time European night train services are growing again, with more Investments and new lines being planned. The largest provider, ÖBB has seen an increase in passengers of 10% on their Nightjet lines last year, fuelled by people who want to avoid flying.

Plant based alternatives to meat are becoming increasingly more popular. The industry as a whole has been growing an astonishing 20% in 2018 and is expected to continue at this pace, with some analysts expecting meat substitutes to capture 50% of the meat industry by 2050.

An often overlooked impact of the Friday for Future movement has been their ability to changed the minds of their parents who are in positions to make a difference. The recent trend of big tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft committing publicly to reduction targets is in part driven by employees asking for change, as well as their customers expecting them to take the lead on climate action.

All of these shifts are driven by individuals not only asking their politicians and employers to do their part but following through by making conscious decisions about the climate impact of their travel, food and other consumption.

Hopeful ignorance

One of the biggest hurdles to accelerate these trends is the fact that most people are still unaware as to what climate action could look like in their daily lives. Ask anyone on the street what they do to contribute to lowering carbon emissions, many will unfortunately tell you that they are using less plastic, even though plastic use has little to no impact on an individual’s carbon footprint.

At the same time, this “collective ignorance” is a huge opportunity. As Greta Thunberg recently argued: “The hope lies in the fact that people don’t know what is going on. If we become aware, then change can happen.”

So how can we take this opportunity, how can we make more people aware and empower more people to evaluate their choices and change not only themselves but the world around them? At Tomorrow we believe it’s by making the climate impact of everything accessible to everyone.

Both the digitisation of our consumer habits and the mass adoption mass adoption of data science techniques like AI and ML have the potential to make significant contributions to climate change by closing the information gap to consumers as well as companies. And the gap is huge - a decade of poor information, general lack of interest and aggressive green washing has left its mark. When airlines feel the need to boast about their reduction of single-use plastics, they are exploiting the fact that most consumers have a hard time distinguishing between the impact of different environmental goals.

People need to know how they can help and they need confidence that the changes they make individually can create big cumulative effects.

Tomorrow’s vision

Tomorrow’s mission is to empower people and organisations to understand and reduce their carbon footprint. Our first step towards this goal was electricityMap, a real time global map of the carbon intensity of electricity usage. Our second step is North, an automatic carbon tracking app.

The North app

Our vision with North is to automate the process of gaining insights into the climate impact of every choice people make. The app collects activities from existing apps and services most people already use, from car sharing, trip and airline apps to digital receipts, smart meters and linking bank accounts to get the carbon footprint of daily purchases. The aim is to turn people’s digital footprint into a carbon footprint.

North is built to be private by design, as our business model is not based on profiling and selling user data. All the carbon models are public and the app is infinitely extensible by the open source community, which can code custom integrations. Our goal with North that people get to know about where they stand in their personal carbon journey, and enable everyone to focus on where they can reduce the most.

When our generation looks back on how we fought and solved the climate crisis, what will we identify as the most valuable player? We might realise that it was each and every one of us.

Convinced? Here’s what you can do right now!

As an individual

  • Demand climate action from your political leaders. Join a local chapter of Fridays For Future or look for other citizen groups local to where you live.
  • Learn about climate change. A good start could be our pragmatic guide to climate change. Other great starting points on individual action can be found on Vox, and PBS.
  • Join the public beta of our app North, start tracking your emissions and try to reduce your carbon footprint.

As a software engineer

First of all, you could contribute to North by coding integrations that will allow users all around the world to automatically track their emissions. Our community has already built integrations for services like London Transport or Uber, making it easy for everyone who uses these services to know their footprint. Learn more on how to contribute on our github repo. There’s a growing movement in tech of people wanting to apply their skills to help. There are some great initiatives already individual action and tech like Tech impact makers and ClimateAction.Tech.

Know any other? Write it in the comment section and we’ll update the list.

If you want to follow our progress more closely and meet likeminded people, you can join our public slack channel. If you have a great idea for an integration you’d like to develop, give us a shout out on slack or on the public github repo.


Written by Olivier Baumann
Founder @ Tomorrow, Former Head of Design
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