Climate: Do Individual Actions Matter?

Can the actions of individual people make a difference in how much carbon dioxide is emitted on an international scale? International organizations, such as the UN, have called on individuals to limit their carbon footprint and live more sustainably, along with governments and corporations.

Some argue that it would be more effective to focus on changing government and corporate policies to limit emissions from the energy and agriculture sectors than to ask people to reduce their carbon footprint, but experts say that while that is true, every reduction helps.


“We should all be the most responsible citizens we can in every sense of the word and contribute to a sustainable existence on this planet,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He added that that means, in part, minimizing our carbon footprints as individuals.

And that can take different forms.

The UN Act Now campaign for individual climate actions proposes that people can minimize their carbon footprints directly by changing their energy and transport use and their food consumption. Other less direct methods of reducing emissions include divestment from fossil fuel companies in pension plans, protesting in support of climate action, and lobbying government officials to pass sustainable environmental policies.

Kim Cobb, a climatologist at Brown University, said there are consequences when people have too big a carbon footprint. And there are still people in the environmental movement who don’t weigh their personal carbon footprint.

“I think we live in an anti-gravity movement where people can say they don’t care about their personal carbon footprint. Collective action is more important,” he said. In the future, however, “there is going to be a moral and social cost for these individuals.”

Still, there are some climate impacts that people are not responsible for and cannot change on their own. More than 70% of all gas emissions produced between 1988 and 2015 came from 100 fossil fuel companies, according to a 2017 report by CDP, a British, German and US-based nonprofit organization that helps companies and cities to disclose their environmental impact.

And despite UN warnings about the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many countries are planning to extract twice as much fossil fuel as would be consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), even as they promise more ambitious cuts.

So while individuals can do certain things to minimize their personal carbon footprints, says Mann, “we shouldn’t let polluters shift the conversation so that the onus falls on individuals, which takes the pressure off them.”

“We cannot pass laws that incentivize renewable energy or block new fossil fuel infrastructure. We cannot impose regulations on the industry. We cannot negotiate directly with international partners. We need policymakers to do it,” Mann said. “Those things can only be implemented on a systemic level and so we have to keep up the pressure on policy makers and those in a position to make changes that we can’t make.”

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