Does what I do matter?

International organizations such as the United Nations, along with governments and corporations, have urged people to limit their carbon footprint and live more sustainably.

Some argue that it would be more effective to focus on changing government and corporate policies to limit emissions from the energy and agricultural sectors than asking people to limit their carbon footprint, but experts say that while this is true, every reduction in emissions helps.

“We all need to be the most responsible citizens we can be in every sense of the word and contribute to a sustainable existence on this planet,” said University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann. This, he said, is partly about minimizing our carbon footprints as individuals.

And this can take many different forms.

The United Nations’ Act Now campaign for individual climate action suggests that people can minimize their personal carbon footprint directly by changing their energy and transport use and food consumption. Other, less direct methods of reducing carbon emissions include abandoning the pension plans of fossil fuel companies, protesting in support of climate action, and lobbying government officials to adopt environmentally sustainable policies.

Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University, said that humans having an “outsized” carbon footprint could have consequences. And yet there are people involved in the environmental movement who do not consider their personal carbon footprint.

“I think we’re living in an anti-gravity moment where people can say, ‘I don’t care about my first personal carbon footprint. Collective actions are the most important,” she said. However, in the future “these people will bear the moral and social costs.”

However, there are some climate impacts that people are not individually responsible for and cannot change on their own. According to a 2017 report by CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, more than 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions between 1988 and 2015 came from 100 fossil fuel companies.

And despite warnings from the United Nations to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, countries plan to extract twice as much fossil fuel as would be adequate to keep global temperature increases below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, even as they pledge to make ambitious cuts.

So while there are things people can do to minimize their personal carbon footprint, Mann said, “we must not allow … polluters to reframe the debate so that it falls entirely on individuals, which takes the pressure off them.”

“We cannot ourselves pass legislation that encourages renewable energy or blocks new infrastructure that runs on fossil fuels. We cannot impose rules on industry. We cannot negotiate directly with international partners. We need our politicians to do that,” Mann said. “These things can only be adopted at a systematic level, and so we have to keep up the pressure on politicians and corporations and those who are in a position to make changes that we cannot make ourselves.”

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