Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman

Personal vs Societal Responsibility for GHG Emissions


I have neglected my blog in favour of pursuing other interests over the summer, but I want to explore several related ideas over the next three blog posts this fall. The first will explore how much of the environmental crisis is attributable to personal choice and how much is effectively beyond our individual control. The second will look at whether there may be a social-media-like platform that elicits commonalities, not divisions, and which could build consensus and inform policy around the climate crisis. Lastly, I want to discuss to what extent technological disruption will play a role/influence our fate or even perhaps save us from ourselves in the climate crisis.

Personal vs Societal Responsibility for GHG Emissions

The discussion around the climate crisis and solutions to it is often dominated by a focus on choices made by individuals. There is an insidious aspect to this. It implies that if causes, and therefore solutions, to the climate crisis arise largely as a result as a consequence of aggregate individual choice, then climate change is your fault because you are not making the correct choices, and further, it is somehow a moral or ethical failing on your part. Not only that, it lets societal institutions avoid acknowledging their responsibility and acting on it.

The fossil fuel industry plays its part in furthering this narrative. A recent (Nov 2nd) Twitter poll conducted by Shell, is a good example. It asked the question: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” (emphasis added by me), and offered 4 alternatives, 3 of which had to do with personal choice.

But really, how much of climate impact is in fact due to personal choice and how much is effectively beyond our individual control because of societal choices? I decided to explore this question by looking at our household carbon footprint and the effect of some changes that we have made recently, together with one more change we could make. I used an online calculator that takes into account differences between countries and Canadian provinces. I used data from 3 years ago for the “Before” case and data from this last year for the “After” case.

As you can see from this pie chart, the footprint for our 2-person household was 16.16 tonnes. The biggest single item was food, followed by electricity and natural gas for the house, followed by transportation more or less equally shared by automobile fuel and air travel. These top 4 accounted for 77% of all carbon emissions. The remaining 23% is divided among 11 different categories, each averaging about 2% of the total.

Two years ago, we acquired a battery electric vehicle (EV), a Nissan Leaf. It is our daily use vehicle, when we use a car. I still ride my bicycle for most in-town trips. I have kept the internal combustion (ICE) vehicle for towing my small boat, as most EVs, ours included, will void the warranty if you tow anything with them. However, the ICE mileage is down drastically from before acquiring the EV. The other significant change we made was to replace our end-of-life gas furnace with an air-to-air heat pump, with a high efficiency condensing gas furnace as backup. There is one more change we have not yet made, but which I entered into the calculator for comparison purposes, which is to switch to an all-vegetarian diet.

How much difference has it made?

As the “After” pie chart now shows, the carbon footprint would be 10.5 tonnes, about a 35% reduction. The biggest single reduction was to replace the furnace with the heat pump – a nearly 3 tonne reduction. The next biggest change was to reduce the flying. We had been making an international flight every 2-3 years but this year have gone nowhere by plane, and late next year I may only make a shorter flight to visit my relatives back east. That change brings a reduction of more than a tonne. Driving the EV reduces the carbon footprint by just under a tonne, but it is a 40% reduction from before. The surprise for me is that an all vegetarian diet only reduces our food footprint 19%, less than a tonne, perhaps because we don’t eat a lot of meat currently. The remaining 11 categories are the same as the “Before” case.

What lessons can be drawn from this exercise?

The first is that personal choice can indeed make some difference. The 3 changes we have made – heat pump, EV, flying less, together reduced our footprint by about a third.

The second lesson is two-fold.

Most of the remaining categories don’t offer a lot of scope for big reductions. We are not likely, for example, to stop buying insurance, paying for connectivity or for pharmaceuticals that keep us alive and healthy. Food, in the “After” case, is also not something that we can do without, and it becomes the single biggest source of carbon in our situation, more than 40% of it.

Also, and I think this is the biggest take-away, is that we, as individuals, have very little control over the carbon footprint of the remaining categories. We don’t have control over how pharmaceuticals are produced. We don’t have control over which buildings insurance companies occupy (the largest source of their carbon footprint, apparently). While we can reduce the impact of clothing and shoes to some extent by being mindful of the types that we buy, that stuff wears out and needs to be replaced, and the more active you are the faster it wears out. We can chip away at the remaining categories by changing some of our choices, but the total reduction from those changes won’t amount to much.

Let’s examine the big categories again; food, housing and transportation.

Our industrial food system means that most of the food that we city-dwellers eat is produced far away using carbon-intensive methods, incurring a large carbon footprint to grow, store and ship it to us. It may be that the calculator I used overstates the case somewhat, as it probably doesn’t account for what we grow in our home garden or the local produce we buy in season, but many people do not have access to a garden or local produce, so it’s likely accurate on average.

The carbon footprint of housing and transportation is, for most of us, largely beyond our control. What housing is available is determined by land-use policies decided by municipal, regional and provincial governments. Housing developers rarely build housing that is any more energy efficient than code minimum. Individual home owners who can barely afford the basic cost of the home find it difficult to pay more up front for more efficient housing. If policies by various levels of government lead to excessively high housing prices in the city centres, people will necessarily migrate to the edges and the city’s hinterland to find somewhere they can afford to live.

If transportation money to those outlying regions is put into highways instead of mass transit, you can hardly blame people for buying cars to commute to their jobs – what choice do they have? If fossil fuel exploration and production is subsidized through tax breaks and royalty deferments way more than renewables are (about 23X more in British Columbia in 2017), then it is not reasonable to expect people to buy renewables over the subsidized, apparently cheaper fossil fuels.

My point is this: while there are things we can and should do as individuals, the majority of the carbon footprint we have is determined by societal choices, choices and decisions made by government. In this struggle, government really matters and therefore who you vote for matters – politics matters.

However, our system of governance is not well designed to produce solutions. I’ll explore some of that in the next blog.

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3 thoughts on “Personal vs Societal Responsibility for GHG Emissions”

  1. I’m following this series of blog posts with interest Alex, as they are very much in line with the sustainability thoughts I have been exploring on Skookum Maru. One comment on the effect individual choice vs. societal or governmental action though. I entirely agree that individual actions will not address climate change directly. Any successful change will have be implemented on a global scale, which will require international cooperation that can only happen through governmental acts. However governmental policies always follow societal shifts, and societal shifts are always driven by individual actions. So your decision to ride a bicycle or drive a ZEV may have only a limited impact on the environment, but those decisions *do* have a real impact in shifting the boundaries of social expectations. And those boundaries, in turn, define how we act as a group and the policies that our governments will enact.

    One of my great frustrations when discussing the environmental crisis is the argument that any individual act is worthless because it will have no real impact, even in the aggregate (“even if everyone drove electric cars it would not reduce carbon emissions enough”) or that some technology is not scalable (“we can’t grow enough biofuel feedstock to replace our fossil fuel use without compromising food production”) . We are not going to find a single technological solution to the problem and there is not going to be a mass shift on the part of governments toward carbon reduction policies and sustainable energy sources. Even the most aggressive proposals on the table right now – the much-feared “Green New Deal” here in the US for example – are not enough to actually reduce emissions to the point where we could meet the 1.5 C max global temperature rise goal (which is looking like it may be impossible to achieve regardless of what we might do). Technological change will only be driven by individual actions that move our societal expectations around the use of fossil fuels. Governments will follow where individuals lead.

    1. Chris,
      Thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts.
      I do very much take your point about individual actions helping to shift social expectations and normalize green behaviours and that the aggregate of those individual actions help drive governmental action. I certainly did not want to leave the impression that individual acts are worthless, far from it. The actions we have taken in our household to date have reduced our carbon footprint by a third – not enough but not insignificant either.
      The main thing I was trying to get across is that the narrative put forward by the fossil fuel industry (and some others including some governments) that climate change action is primarily an individual responsibility is clearly not true.
      I am not sure I agree that technological change will only be driven by individual actions that move our societal expectations around the use of fossil fuels. I’ll have more to say about that in the third blog in this series.

      1. Ah, I completely agree that the “what are you willing to do” narrative from the fossil fuel industry is disingenuous at best. Individuals can impel action by governments and corporations, but individual action cannot solve the problem by itself. So I suppose the answer to the “what will you do” question is something along the lines of “force the government to tax fossil fuels to the point where they are no longer competitive with sustainable energy options”. Which is likely not what they are looking to hear.

        I look forward to your thoughts on technology change. I do think that the path forward – if one exists for us – is a combination of technology advances and shifts in our expectations for energy use. But how that happens and what it looks like is not at all clear.

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