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Let us not depersonalise climate change

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Let us not depersonalise climate change

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?

Let us not  depersonalise climate change

Expert Expressions

VN Garg

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.

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