The high-profile decision by Greta Thunberg to travel to New York by boat for the UN Climate Action Summit highlights a stark reality. Our individual decisions, such as flying or eating meat, do make a collective difference in terms of climate impact.
Recently, some scientists have argued that climate action should primarily be about systemic change, rather than individual lifestyle change. Climate scientist Michael Mann recently argued “we need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care”.
It has also been argued by Mary Heglar that in the US, industries have historically sponsored adverts that focused on individuals responsibility for pollution as a tactic to deflect attention away from policy changes.
However, individual behaviour change and systemic structural changes can be seen as two sides of the same coin when it comes to climate action. For example, many governments have plans for airport expansion, but such plans are incompatible with climate targets although they are based on expected growth in aviation — which is formed of the choices of millions of citizens.
Whilst individually the choice to eat one beef burger does not cause much emissions, these choices add up. Meat demand is growing in some parts of the world, including China, which has consequences collectively and globally. In fact, projected rises in meat and dairy demand makes the 2 degree climate target impossible. If meat and dairy demand continues to increase, it could make up 100% of the entire global carbon budget for a 1.5 degree temperature rise by 2060 (see below).
Figure: Increased growth in meat demand makes the 2 degree climate target impossible (Source: Heinrich Boell & IATP)
Low-carbon lifestyles: Nudging behaviour
In the energy sector, moving to ‘net zero’ emissions is probably possible without interfering too much with people’s lives. An average person doesn’t care where their electricity comes from, as long as it powers their home. However, policy changes in other sectors like food or transport might be more visible.
For example, by 2050, in a net zero world, an average person will probably have to eat less meat (unless perhaps lab-grown or occasionally grass-fed), use more public transport, and potentially be connected to a district heating or cooling network. In democracies, policies to facilitate these changes will generally need to have public support. The same applies to plastic use, where policy changes such as bans on plastic bags need tacit support.
At the intersection of individual and systemic changes are policies or marketing strategies that ‘nudge’ behaviour. For example, pricing signals or even menu wording choices can encourage people to eat healthier and more sustainable plant-based meals, as recent research by WRI has highlighted.
In terms of prices, chicken nuggets are currently a cheap source of protein due to huge agricultural subsidies. The Food and Land Use Coalition highlighted these vast subsidies in their recent report. Both meat and fossil fuel subsidies must be curbed by governments to make low-carbon choices easier. The IMF recently calculated that fossil fuel subsidies make up around $5 trillion dollars per year — over 6% of global GDP! The same study noted that reforming fossil fuel subsidies and introducing efficient pricing would lower global emissions by around 30%. We do not yet know how much global emissions could be reduced by reforming food subsidies, but it would likely lead to major cost and healthcare savings.
It is not ‘either-or’ when it comes to system versus individual climate action — we need both. Action to move towards a ‘net zero’ world needs to be both bottom-up (supported by individuals choices) and top-down (supported by government) if this is to happen fast enough to meet global climate goals. Societal or cultural norms may shift in a changing climate, along with government policies, and these norms could either end up supporting or hindering the low-carbon transition.
Mass of individual decisions
Awareness of climate change appears to be rising, with Extinction Rebellion and the student climate strikes growing. Some figures show that around 6 million people took part in the recent climate strikes, which is almost one in every 1000 people globally!
Imagine if all these people voted for ‘green’ politicians and became advocates for sustainable food and transport in their local area? Imagine, also, if these people demanded their banks and pension funds drop fossil fuel investments? These individuals could make a big difference in terms of their voting power, purchases, and financial decisions. Would this be enough to turn the tide on rising global emissions? Perhaps not, because it’s fair to say that the actions of some matter much more than others, but these actions could have a ripple effect and influence others.
The actions of leaders and those in the public eye have a disproportionate impact. For those working in sustainability, it would be better to try to make our actions congruent which what we are working on to avoid criticism. That is what Greta Thunberg is doing. Unfortunately, climate events and UN Summits still frequently include beef on the menu, even though we know livestock are responsible for nearly 15% of global emissions. Flights by prominent climate activists also provide fodder for climate deniers.
However, it should be recognised that living in a low-carbon way is still difficult. Politicians must reform the system so low-carbon living becomes easier and cheaper. For instance, if you currently live in a rural area, it’s hard to travel without emissions unless you can afford an electric car. While the concept of ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’ has taken off in Sweden, this may not take off in other cultures, and could lead to a backlash if people feel patronised or feel they do not have other options available to them. Many people still need to fly for work or business, for instance. However, there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint of flying. While it’s still controversial, perhaps there is a role for carbon offsetting, where there’s no other alternative to flying — at least it would create a market for planting more trees!
Mass social movements are also made up of millions of individuals. For example, think of the actions of Millicent Fawcett and others in getting votes for women. By saying that it is ‘systemic change’ which is needed, rather than individual change, this could end up disempowering those who want to get involved in wider movements to stop climate change.
Finally, the mass of individual decisions, such as boycotts, have throughout history been the cause of policy changes. As a consumer, the impact of your choices can also be multiplied by other actions, for example, writing letters to companies asking for greener options where they are not available. Collective choices to buy ‘green’ products do not make as much difference as government regulations or trade reforms, but they can push governments or businesses in the right direction — demonstrating what’s possible. Obviously, individual choices are not a silver bullet for climate action but they can collectively have a major impact in driving and supporting systemic change.