Op-Ed: The climate crisis…how can YOU really help?

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Climate change is real and actions need to be taken now. Everyone knows that, but what’s up for greater debate is the age-old question: how much impact does one individual have on global carbon emissions? 

Local students protesting in front of Saint John City Hall in 2019. (Amelia Bailey/The Baron)

How much do our individual actions actually matter when it comes to climate change? Is it really that important to make small changes in our individual lives when big systems and policies beyond our individual control are out there?

Does any of this stuff matter? Will it really get us out of the climate crisis? Or is it a bigger systemic issue? Here’s a look into that debate. 

What should I be doing? Does it matter?

Unfortunately, it’s true that simple solutions such as cutting out cheese and buying a sustainably made shirt won’t make a huge difference. However, with that being said, there are effective solutions out there that can and will support our environment. 

Dr. Katherine Wilknson, climate activist and the lead author of a book called “Drawdown”, looked at the biggest sources of carbon emissions and what the solutions are out there. 

Dr. Wilkinson says that part of the reason our individual choices don’t matter is that lots of the ways greenhouse gasses are emitted are from things we cannot control. 

Breaking it down into five sectors of the economy, these include electricity, food, industry, transportation, and “other”. 

Globally electricity is 25 per cent (burning coal and fossil gas to make the electricity). Following electricity is agriculture and land use (25 per cent). This includes what we grow, how we grow it, and deforestation.

Within this sector is the issue of livestock used for meat and dairy. For example, parts of the Amazon rainforest are currently being cleared for cattle ranches and to grow corn and soy for farm animals. That is roughly half our emissions simply emitted by destroying our ecosystems. 

The rest is made of “industry” (factories, business, etc. making products humans use at 20 per cent. In this, making cement is responsible for 8 per cent globally in some measures. Refrigerants (which are greenhouse gases) are also responsible for many of the direct emissions from industries. 

Transportation counts for 15 per cent. Buildings (oil and gas being burned for heating) is five per cent. 

So, what does this mean? 

When rounding to the nearest five per cent, collectively these five categories account for about 90 per cent of emissions. The other 10 per cent comes from extractions of greenhouse gases and natural gas pipelines. 

What stands out about all these systems is that we do not have a ton of control over this as an individual. Simply flipping a switch already engages us into an electricity grid. Using a car releases greenhouse gases. This is one of the big arguments about how individual choices don’t matter. 

Another argument is that even if we do make changes to the things in our control it will only make the teeniest difference. 

How tiny? Looking at it from a mathematical perspective, the average Canadian carbon footprint is 15.6 tonnes of carbon emissions per year. 

For those that don’t know, a carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our individual actions. 

With that being said, 15.6 tonnes is one of the larger footprints out there. Persons who have less money emit less carbon, purely due to less amount of travel, less flying, and smaller houses. Oil-rich countries, such as the U.S., have bigger footprints. The global national average is 4.8 tonnes per capita – a little more than one quarter of the American footprint. 

Putting this into perspective, Canada’s global emissions equals 729 megatonnes, contributing to 1.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. 

How can I reduce my footprint?

Reducing individual carbon footprints all differ in methodology but generally have the same “top five” list. Research suggests that the top five ways to decrease your carbon footprint are the following:

  • Have fewer kids (this is a very controversial one, however, it is effective, especially with families living a high carbon lifestyle.)
  • Drive less
  • Fly less
  • Become more energy efficient (such as adding insulation to your house, putting solar panels on if you can)
  • Switching to a plant-based diet. 

So can we really make a difference?

What it comes down to, really, even if you are the “perfect” ecological human, is that we are just a rounding number to the overall global carbon crisis. This may make us sad, but if we can change the system, we can change millions of lives. This problem is much bigger than we are. 

How do we do this? How can we make such a change? Well, right now as a society we have solutions to lots of things; we have the technology so we can do it. However, it will take approximately 15 years at our current pace. Electric cars are on their way into society, and we have a lot of solutions now for company refrigerants, such as switching to natural products. 

Implementing these fixes feels more doable than convincing each person to go vegan or ride their bike. Climate change is, really, a math problem, with big numbers and tight timelines. We must think in terms of the world. Don’t devote all your focus to minutely lower your impact, because it makes a small difference. 

So, we have a few options of what we can do that will make a bigger impact: 

Sending a message to others: talk about it!! Support evidence-based policies that tackle climate change effectively, especially through your vote. Communicate and explain the importance to others through your social media, your everyday conversations, and protests.

To advocate effectively, think of it like a Venn diagram: what are you good at? Who can you reach? Who can you influence? What needs to be done? What will you focus on? How does it help? 

Fixing our climate is lifetime work; do the things that make you happy and bring you joy. There are so many things we can do, and we can choose how we make an impact and work to build a better climate for our future.