2020 has been an eventful year. A global pandemic, a presidential election, protests and renewed calls for police reform and racial justice, wildfires devastating the West Coast, job loss, and more. 2020 is also a milestone year for climate awareness. Presidential primary candidates ran with climate-minded platforms, and it seems like every brand we follow is now touting their “going green” efforts and publicly releasing their “carbon footprints.”
But what exactly is a “carbon footprint” and why do people seem fixated on it?
The Nature Conservancy defines a carbon footprint as “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.” In other words, it is the estimated carbon emission contribution a product, group, or individual has on global warming. And as we continue to see the world’s total amount of carbon emissions rise, natural phenomena onset by increase in temperatures and other conditions induced by climate change, like the wildfires in Australia and California, will also continue to increase in size and frequency, according to ABC News.
I also reached out to Caroline Henderson, senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, to clarify the significance of measuring footprints further. “Tracking a ‘carbon footprint’ allows us to understand where our emissions come from and thus, can help us identify which actions would go furthest in reducing them,” Henderson explained. “While people often hear ‘carbon footprint’ when discussing individual consumption and behavior, the term can also apply to anything from manufacturing a pair of jeans to the products made by a company like Microsoft.”
So how can we improve our impact?
The truth is… complicated. Because while applaudable movements like Zero-Waste force us to examine just how dependent we are on carbon-emitting services as part of our daily routine, we as consumers are not the direct problem. “Taking action in our own lives is a great place to start, and measuring our own carbon footprint can be a helpful tool for considering our own lifestyles and behaviors,” Henderson acknowledged, but said there has also been “a long-standing false premise that carbon emissions are solely the responsibility of individual choices, while limitations on the choices consumers face are seldom analyzed. The climate breakdown is happening, among other things, because governments and corporations have chosen not to invest in clean energy for decades, leaving not much choice for consumers.”
There’s nothing wrong with making changes at home. While I personally have no intention of canceling my Amazon Prime account—OK, my Dad’s Amazon Prime account, which he still graciously allows me to use—anytime soon, thanks to eco-influencing gurus like @goingzerowaste, I do think twice about what I’m buying and if it’s something I truly need shipped. It’s good to understand how the systems we use work and affect our planet, we just have to remember that the buck doesn’t stop there.
“While reducing meat consumption and reevaluating our relationship to airline travel are certainly ways we can reduce our individual carbon footprint, we know we cannot tackle the climate crisis without addressing the biggest emitter of all: the fossil fuel industry” Henderson warned. And that’s what makes discourse surrounding the Green New Deal and fossil fuels so crucial. “It is extremely important to keep in mind that we are not facing a climate crisis because people work, travel, or eat.”
It is comforting to know that we are not single-handedly destroying the ozone by occasionally eating an Animal-Style Double-Double at In-N-Out, but if you are anything like me, you probably still feel an urge to do something because, you know, you probably like the planet on which we live. The good news is that urge is 100 percent correct, and you (we) definitely could (should) do something by focusing on collective solutions. Some good ways include:
1. Know your city’s zoning laws
This might sound like a weird ask, but since research shows low-density development (think the ‘burbs) emits 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than high-density development (cities with good public transportation systems) per capita, the ability to build multi-family housing is key, yet many areas in the United States have laws in place which don’t allow you to do so. Thus, looking up your city’s regulations and campaigning for looser zoning laws can make a difference.
2. Attend a climate strike near you
This option isn’t always for everyone (I work freelance in film, so I know the chances of skipping out on work can be slim.) But if you do have the opportunity, mass mobilization can be extremely powerful—just make sure you wear a mask.
3. Research and donate your time or money
Specifically to a group advocating for sustainable options independent of fossil fuels, like 350.org.
Do your homework on which candidate is supporting large scale environmental changes, and get involved. Try to research down to the local level, because we need every politician on board if we are going to instill meaningful systemic change.