The writer is former chairperson, UP Forest Corporation; former principal secretary, forest & environment; former chairman, UP Pollution Control Board, and former Honorary Secretary, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), UP Regional Branch
Looking at the enormity of greenhouse gas emissions, often a question is raised whether there is any sense in making efforts to reduce carbon footprints at individual level. Should individuals contribute only by becoming a part of a movement? Will a vote for green energy do more to save the planet than any attempts to reduce one’s individual footprint ever could? Will the Individual carbon footprints be legitimate once renewable energy powers our cities? Does it make sense that instead of trying to ride a bike and not buy gas from fossil fuel companies, we join the fight of influencing the government? In other words, an attempt is made to depersonalise climate change. The whole thing boils down to the question: How can individuals help to eliminate the nightmare of climate change? Will climate crisis be overcome by focusing on the actions of big polluters and government policies alone?
Let us take the example of using private vehicles for commuting, to elaborate our point. When you fill up your car with petrol, are you responsible for emissions coming from burning the fossil fuels, or is it the companies which produce petrol responsible for greenhouse gas emissions? Emissions come from burning the fossil fuels and not from making the fuels. Does it mean that it is you as a person who is responsible for emissions? There are people who argue that if fossil fuels are not produced, then the question of burning these will not arise. Companies say that they are just the producers and are satisfying a public demand. It is the consumers who are to be held responsible. But, in the process, they confuse the public and the policy makers, and obstruct policy changes in order to keep making profit while the world suffers. What is the solution? Meaningful climate action will be possible when we clear the confusion created by the fossil fuel industry and start holding them responsible. But meanwhile, should we continue to use vehicles using fossil fuels?
The world needs to reduce emissions by tens of billions of tons annually. As individuals, our contribution to climate change by changing our consumption is extremely small. Recycling, less driving, and using energy-efficient bulbs might save half a ton of carbon every year. A household going car-free, flight-free, and vegan might reduce emissions by four tons a year. It is obvious that on a standalone basis, individual actions cannot diminish the greenhouse gas emissions substantially. It certainly requires government investment and government regulations. Government needs raising the price of carbon and fossil fuels, giving incentive and lowering the price of green energy, and pushing subsidies and other policies to reduce emissions as fast as possible. It is obvious that focusing on individuals obscures the need for systemic solutions by the government and corporate culpability.
But, on the other hand, depersonalizing climate change on the ground that systemic solutions are needed cannot be justified. Social change is built on a foundation of individual practice. Research shows that a single house installing rooftop solar panels increases the probability of another house in the same local area doing so by 0.78 percentage points. The same applies to conserving water or recycling. Household and community led changes can help avert climate crisis, even if government and corporate actions are far more important.
It is also argued that taking little, statistically meaningless actions to help the environment might reduce the people’s interest and support in fixing the problem at a societal and governmental level. A University of Michigan study found that people most likely to engage in individual-level pro-environmental behaviours were those who were not convinced on climate change at governmental level. This concern is really serious and needs to be addressed.
What communities do; laws reflect. We are part of a society, where people interact with companies and government, and companies interact with people and the government. Each part influences the other. For example, animal rights activists moved against fur wearing in the 1980s , and raised awareness about how cruel the practice is for the broad public. Now that the trade is much diminished, cities are finally enacting bans on new fur sales. Changing social norms around carbon-intensive behaviours makes the likelihood of dramatic climate-change legislation in the future more likely.
Further, research indicates that laws and regulations often work better when they reflect what community is already doing or how it is already changing, rather than trying to force a community to change. To make a climate legal regime work, it might help to tighten laws gradually. It also might help for individuals to start acting in anticipation of those laws. Rules requiring solar power, ban on stubble burning, encouraging electric cars and taxes on fossil fuels would be easier to pass and less painful to adhere to if more people were using solar power, driving electric cars, burning stubble less and using fewer fossil fuels to begin with. Personal climate responsibility needs to come along with policies such as carbon taxes, electric-vehicle mandates and so on. Finally, private initiatives might build support with people who have traditionally been really opposed to the government taking action on the climate.
It is important to do a few things to reduce individual carbon footprint. These include adopting a plant-rich diet, buying carbon offsets, using renewable energy at home, wasting less food, using reusable containers and bags, using mass transit rather than private cars and flying less often - that’s where change needs to happen. Pressuring the political system is another crucial behaviour. At local level, demanding green, walkable neighbourhoods and abundant, low-cost public transit is a good point where political action should begin. These are some of the most important things that individuals can do. This can be followed with voting and supporting candidates and political parties which are pro-climate change.
The debate of individual versus collective is futile. While there is no doubt that macro action at the level of government and corporate is needed to make and enforce laws and regulations to bring about climate change and corporates must co-operate in this effort rather than playing confusing tactics, individuals and community have a critical role not only in observing correct behaviours but also in creating pressure on the government and corporates to achieve climate change. The question of depersonalising climate change should not even arise.