The last blog I posted looked into the environmental impact of air travel in more detail, in which I explored the fact that air travel actually makes up a far smaller percentage of emissions than popular discourse would have you believe. I thought that the real story, then, was that those emissions, however small, are generated by a disproportionally small group of people, as estimates suggest that 80% of the world’s population has never stepped foot on a plane and very, very few people fly multiple times each year. I concluded that it’s more an issue of inequality than it is of objective carbon footprint.
This blog is a companion, of sorts, to that post, because I feel like the natural follow-up question after hearing the real facts about air travel and carbon dioxide is to say: “Hang on. If the most carbon intensive thing you can do as an individual only makes up 2-3% of total emissions, where do the rest of the individual emissions come from? Are individual emissions a tiny proportion of the whole, or do other areas make up a much bigger slice of the pie?”
The relationship between companies, individuals and emissions is a complicated one. An oft-quoted statistic is that 100 companies are responsible for 70% of emissions, and while that’s broadly true, it is only one part of the story. Yes, many carbon emissions are generated by these companies, but this tends to be done to facilitate products and services that are for the end consumer: us. Around 10% of the emissions produced by the 20 biggest polluters (all of which are oil companies) are due to the mining, refining and transportation of various fuels; the other 90% comes from the use of the end product. We could attribute a decent chunk of emissions to product manufacturers, but most of their emissions go toward creating the things we use every day, from cars to plastic packaging to foil to shoes to shampoo. Fossil fuel companies do a lot of bad stuff, but many of their activities are providing the oil and gas that fuels the cars, buses, planes and boats that we all use to get around. When you see a chart breaking up emissions by sector, the “transport” sector mainly references people using cars, trains and planes and the fuel that requires, but it (not necessarily unfairly, but perhaps misleadingly) assigns those emissions to the companies that make the fuel, not those that consume it.
When it comes to addressing individual emissions, we look to things that are a) obviously a luxury or b) wasteful in a way that’s easy to change. Flying a lot is a luxury, eating expensive red meat is a luxury, buying lots of clothes regularly is a luxury, and using energy-efficient light bulbs and taking shorter showers is not that difficult to do. But if we look at the big picture, you see that most individual emissions are not produced through regular shopping hauls or fancy meals or frequent flyer cards. There are almost eight billion people on this planet and, especially as populations become wealthier and more urbanised, all those people are merely turning on lights in their houses and eating regular meals and travelling to work – it’s just happening on a colossal scale because of the sheer number of people alive right now. In the US, 29% of emissions are due to transportation and 28% are due to electricity. Of course, that includes the transportation of goods and electricity to power a lot more things than people’s homes, but it still begs the question: Who are those goods for? And what is all that electricity aiming to produce? It is hard to get more granular statistics precisely because these webs are a lot more connected than we think. Building enough housing and providing clean water, electricity, nutritious food and Internet to all of these people is extremely energy intensive. The actions themselves are not that carbon-intensive; it’s just that so many people are doing them that the cumulative effect is enormous.
And of course, not all ‘these people’ have these things even now. 785 million people (around 10% of the world’s population) still don’t have access to clean water close to home. And even those who do have water, heat and electricity are not automatically on par emissions-wise with the biggest individual polluters, a label that is heavily influenced by nationality. I’m not trying to pretend that it’s everyone equally; citizens of rich countries vastly outdo even the wealthy citizens of emerging economies, let alone average people. Most emissions are concentrated in the US, EU and China, and per capita it is Americans, Russians and the Japanese who have the highest greenhouse gas emissions (followed closely by Europe and China). The point of this is not to act as if every individual is equally responsible, because that’s not the case. In the same way that big polluting nations owe a debt to the low-emitting countries who will bear the brunt of climate change, it is people (particularly, I assume, the most privileged people) in America, Europe, China, Russia and Japan who are benefiting most day-to-day from our continued plundering of the world’s natural resources. But the point still stands that it is not extraordinarily privileged people doing extraordinarily privileged things that creates the most stark of total emissions figures. A billion people living fairly modest lives still requires a significant amount of energy – and not only do we have far more people than that, we still have many people who don’t yet have access to the water, food, housing and electricity they deserve, an injustice that will need a lot of energy to right.
This is why we need massive systemic change. We need to make it so the simple act of having heat in the winter or electricity to power your house does not contribute toward a world fracturing under the weight of its population’s needs (and, yes, desires). I don’t think we should be re-framing lives where you have access to clean water, food, sanitation, housing, Internet, electricity and heating as over-privileged – if it is over-privileged to have those things, then I think that only speaks to the dire state of the world and our breathtakingly unjust distribution of resources, rather than a objectively decadent standard of living for the masses. In the short term, sure, turn off your lights and buy a bike. I sound glib but I mean it; just because those small things make a tiny difference overall doesn’t mean we should needlessly waste energy. But we need heating, electricity and transportation systems that work for people without destroying the planet, because if we can’t allow people to live reasonably while also renewably, that oil sitting there, unburned, will probably start to look very attractive again. This doesn’t mean that there will be no change in our lifestyles: I imagine that the decades of unbridled consumption, next day delivery and globalised production will have to come to an end if we are to meaningfully curb the climate crisis. But we will still be alive (which is not a foregone conclusion for many people when you look at climate projections) and given how miserable our insane culture of overwork and over-consumption seems to make even the most privileged of Earth’s citizens, I don’t think a slight slowing down of the way we do things will be the end of the world (indeed, it might be the only thing that is not the end of the world).
There is hope. After years of requiring subsidies to be competitive with fossil fuels, renewables are now cheaper than oil, coal and gas at market prices. It is officially cheaper in most cases to get your electricity via solar and wind rather than another barrel of black gold. Hopefully, the technology in other sectors will begin to follow suit, aided by a move toward investing heavily in the institutions trying to solve the climate crisis, not get away with continuing to propagate it. I know that any talk of individual emissions immediately brings up the lists of ‘how to live plastic-free’ and ‘here are five simple things you can do to lower your carbon footprint,’ but as I outlined in my chicken vs egg blog post, I think trying to take the bottom-up approach of influencing company patterns by changing global demand one consumer at a time is wildly inefficient and will just be too slow given what we need to do. Individual emissions can be impacted by something other than individual’s desires and shopping choices; they can be changed by policy, or by introducing much better, greener options, or a combination of the two.
I don’t think it should be controversial to want to preserve a decent standard of living in a post-climate crisis world – and I understand where people are coming from when they express concerns about a future where the environment is more stable but that their lives have changed beyond recognition (I personally think that a future where the climate continues to be unstable will result in the biggest and most unrecognisable changes in people’s lives, but I can sympathise with the hesitation). Getting everyone on board with a different world will, to some extent, rest on being able to create a vision of a post-climate crisis world that looks like somewhere you’d still want to live. Fortunately, people are doing this. The LEAP manifesto is all about using the climate crisis as the impetus to address not only environmental destruction, but also racism, sexism, colonialism and wealth inequality, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because they are inextricably linked. Naomi Klein has always believed that, should we able to address our changing climate quickly enough, the world we’ll create will be better than the one we live in now. I hope that she’s right.