It often feels as though climate change discourse is a blame game. Too much time is wasted on passing the responsibility from citizen to government to corporation, and back again. Undoubtedly, it is important to locate the source of environmental harm, but too much air is wasted while not enough action is taken.
As you may already know, the term ‘carbon footprint’ was coined by British Petroleum. The oil giant paid PR professionals to deflect sentiments that fossil fuel companies were responsible for climate change. The carbon footprint calculator, created in 2004, estimated the contribution of private individuals to global warming. It’s not a bad thing to want to reduce your energy consumption. But citizens shouldn’t be shamed and patronised by the very corporations that capitalise on the Earth’s destruction.
People recycle in good faith and purchase ‘conscious’ clothing lines. But, they may be doing less of an environmental good than at first glance. ‘Wish-cycling’, when we chuck items we’re unsure of into the recycling bin, risks corrupting an entire batch. Receipts, heavily greasy pizza boxes and many soft plastics are among the biggest culprits. Fast fashion brands exaggerate their commitment to sustainability – that ‘recycled’ top you purchased may only be 20% reused cotton. It’s important to be critical consumers. Then again, how much prior research should we expect busy people with busy lives to partake in?
100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions.
You’ve probably come across this statistic before, as it’s been repeatedly shared over social media. But what does it actually mean? The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in 2017 reported that “100 active fossil fuel producers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom are linked to 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.” Large-scale emissions data is typically calculated on a national level. The CDP’s research demonstrates the transnational nature of climate change, tracing a small number of global industrial emissions to a handful of multinational corporations and state-owned entities. ExxonMobil and Shell are more powerful than many countries when we consider their revenue, influence, and global spread of operations.
These companies do not operate within a vacuum. The CDP’s figure “includes the emissions released when the fossil fuels they sold were subsequently used by their customers.” Clearly, it is vital to recognise the level of power concentrated in the hands of a few companies. But consumerism and globalisation contribute to the growth of these companies. The danger comes with seeing or sharing these types of figures with an attitude of, ‘why should I do anything, then?’ While these fossil fuel producers seem to maximise profits with no regard for the planet, human activity, particularly in rich countries, places a huge demand on their services. The actions of these producers do not entirely absolve us of responsibility. There is a clear need to curb excessive lifestyles and for citizens to place pressures on their governments to take action. But this brings us to another piece of the puzzle: Will they listen?
The November 2021 COP26 conference presented a mixed bag. The conference made an unprecedented reference to fossil fuels and recognised the need to reduce coal dependence. Countries committed to reducing methane emissions by 30% and ending deforestation, both by 2030. However, much of the fossil fuel discourse felt like lip service. According to climate scientists, if countries reach these 2030 targets, the planet’s temperature will still rise by 2.4 degrees over pre-industrial levels by 2100. Many believe that more radical action is needed and that there is still a shocking disparity between science, policy, and action.
The rather underwhelming conclusion is that we all have a responsibility to change for the better: individuals, nations, and businesses. However, making lifestyle changes to, say, eat less meat, choose sustainable transport options and reduce waste can feel in vain when those with power don’t seem to take the climate emergency seriously.