The Messy Truth About Carbon Footprints
October 1, 2021
Carbon footprint
climate change
lifestyle changes

Some commentators argue that tracking your individual carbon footprint is valuable because it highlights the significant differences between high- and low-carbon lifestyles. Others argue that it simply shifts attention away from companies and other powerful actors capable of instigating the systems-level changes that are required to effectively address global warming.

Sami Grover, author of ‘We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now: How Embracing Our Limitations Can Unlock the Power of a Movement’, argues that media coverage of climate change has focused too much on how individuals can contribute less to the problem (by what they consume), instead of on how they can most effectively address it (e.g., through advocacy or protest).

Lifestyle choices matter but, Grover argues, the prevailing understanding of why they matter is flawed. He suggests that any changes you make to your lifestyle are better viewed as ‘acts of strategic mass mobilization’, reflecting the fact that the choices of thousands of individuals can catalyse a broader societal discussion that can lead to systems-level change. Such changes should also be implemented as part of a broader suite of tactics, including advocacy and protest.

So, while carbon footprints help you focus your efforts, their primary value is not in identifying where you are falling short but in providing ‘a metric for both measuring which individual actions are significant enough to meaningfully reduce emissions, and also for identifying where policy-level interventions might be most needed.’

Grover therefore suggests that you should recognise that you are not attempting to reduce your footprint to zero but rather that you form part of a mission to shift the footprint of society as a whole. By all means, he argues, make changes to your diet and travel choices, but consider whether there is anything else you can be doing to magnify the impact of your efforts.