Why We Need To Stop Blaming Individuals For Climate Breakdown

  • 2 months ago

‘Buy less’, ‘turn off your lights’, ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ – we’re all well versed in the environmental messages we get hit with on a daily basis, and many of us are now making changes to reduce our impact on the planet. Any messaging encouraging people to do better for people and the planet is hugely important, but we’re starting to see a shift. We’re seeing a push-back from consumers who are calling out big business for putting the responsibility on them, rather than taking it on themselves, and with 71% of GHG emissions coming from just 100 companies, it’s no wonder. 

We’re increasingly seeing messages from big polluters who are shying away from responsibility and instead suggesting climate breakdown is an issue individuals must solve. Just look at Shell… they’re telling us to “drive carbon neutral” by offsetting our journeys through its ‘Shell Card’, but there’s no mention of the meger 1% of its long-term investment in sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar (Source: ClientEarth). 

While “carbon footprint” is a big part of the sustainability narrative, it’s origins are a little bleak. In perhaps the most impressive, yet most damaging, PR campaign in history, BP coined the phrase “carbon footprint” and unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004. This suddenly allowed us to understand how our daily life of commuting, buying food, yearly holidays etc. was responsible for the breakdown of our climate. Yet, BP who produces 3.8 million barrels of oil a day, releases over 55 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year (Source: BP) and invests only a tiny percent of its budget into renewable energies, positioned itself as blameless. As the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, they managed to successfully shift accountability to individuals whilst escalating climate breakdown. Impressive, right?

But why does this matter? 

This week we saw the release of the sixth IPCC report which has been referred to as a “code red for humanity”. It details that many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible, particularly changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level. It also exposes that since 1970, global surface temperatures have risen faster than in any other 50-year period over the past 2,000 years. 

But there’s hope – as human activity is cited as the common thread in almost all catalysts, whether directly or indirectly, it calls for urgent reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions in the immediate decades to come, in order to limit the global impact already projected for a 1.5°C global warming increase. 

So where do we come in? As individuals, many of us consume high-carbon products and undertake high-carbon activities, and ultimately this is resulting in more carbon being burned. In a nutshell, if we all consumed less then we’d need to take less from our planet – but what impact would this have?  

Although individuals have a collective power, climate change is a global, planetary-scale threat. The IEA has already stated that individual behaviour changes will only contribute to 4% of cumulative emission reductions in the path to net zero. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that corporations and governments are the ones we should be holding accountable for meeting net zero emissions targets.

While action from governments has been slow, it is starting to accelerate slightly. In 2019 the UK, New Zealand and France made laws that commit them to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Sweden has given itself a goal of 2045 and China, Japan and South Korea made similar promises, although their targets have yet to become law. And when it comes to business, it’s becoming clear that businesses which don’t adapt will be at risk. 

As the issues of climate breakdown become even more apparent – we’re talking about the devastating floods in China and the recent forest fires in Greece to name a few – individuals are looking to businesses to lead the way. So, while the power of consumers is strong and the benefits of collective action have been seen worldwide, it’s clear we need planetary-scale changes from corporations and governments if we’re to stop climate breakdown. 

For many businesses, offsetting is a common tactic but this can lend itself to greenwash if these organisations don’t also make changes to their business practices. It’s no good planting trees and preserving forests if you’re going to do nothing to actually reduce the carbon your business is pumping out. Not only this, but both ocean and land carbon sinks are projected to be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere if CO2 emissions increase. This means offsetting initiatives, such as reforestation, cannot be a standalone solution for businesses. While they play an important part in carbon capturing, their effectiveness will deplete if we don’t address the wider issues needed to drastically reduce emissions. As consumer-pressure increases, legislation becomes tighter and organisations begin to see the benefits a greener future can bring, we’re excited about what the future of corporate climate action holds. 

So, while climate breakdown is all our responsibility, it clearly falls on the shoulders of some more than others. As consumers, the best things we can do to help is to lobby, vote and use our voice for change – we’ve all seen the power we can have when we work together. But it’s also important we continue to push for businesses and governments to be better and take responsibility, whilst holding the polluting giants to account. This means that next time you see Shell telling you to live more sustainably, don’t be afraid to call them out! Let’s take some of the weight off our shoulders and push it back onto those organisations who can truly make a real, tangible impact. 



Written by
Joss Ford