Can individuals prevent the climate crisis?

Credit: John Englart (Takver)

Michelle Osborne
Writer

Michelle Osborne examines whether we are misplacing the blame by expecting individuals to solve the climate emergency.

Daily, we hear about the climate crisis, and daily we hear about how it is our fault. It is drilled into us that we need to make changes in our lives to save the planet — turn off the water while shampooing; reduce the amount of meat we eat; take public transport. These actions do reduce waste and should be the key to saving the planet, but there are bigger contributors to the climate crisis.

Major reports have suggested that only 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. These are large energy-based companies, such as Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and Coal India, who have each been deceiving the public about global heating to keep themselves afloat, causing further heating that could have been avoided. Until 2006, ExxonMobil denied global heating entirely, due to the huge effect that action against the climate crisis would have on the company’s revenue. Despite investing $10bn to develop lower-emissions energy, they have continued to hide the effects of the climate crisis for years. During the 1990s, they claimed that burning fossil fuels had no effect on the environment and this is still believed by some people today.

As the public has become more educated on the topic, these companies have begun to do more to prevent global heating. They need to protect their reputation, as well as helping the environment. BP, for example, are currently investing in renewable energy and estimate that 15% of their power will come from renewables by 2040. They have also taken steps to decommission work in the North Sea and recycle the metals used on their oil platforms. However, BP have always had a good environmental record (for an oil company) — other competitors aren’t doing nearly as much to protect the planet.

These companies have nearly no incentive to change, since change would reduce their revenue. Instead, we must rely on others to force them to change.

Global policies, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement, are praised for creating a single guideline to environmental issues and tackling greenhouse gases on an international scale. When all countries agree, guidelines are put in place for emissions, so that every entity within a country must reduce their carbon footprint. These agreements work towards international change — in the Paris Agreement, each country agreed to a 20% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, 20% of energy produced by renewable energy, and a 20% increase in energy efficiency. This would be a big shift in global energy production and efficiency, but on a large scale, would not create much change — China would still produce 25 times more carbon dioxide than France does currently. Countries also have the freedom to back out at any point — demonstrated by the United States leaving the Paris Agreement in 2017. These agreements can also be particularly hard on poorer countries with fewer resources and money to meet the targets. The targets are rarely met, leading to little or no change.

The general public could do more to influence companies to go green. The Global Climate Strike on 20 October 2019, which was inspired by Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, is a good example of this. With her campaigns and the recognition she has gained through working against the climate crisis, she has been described as the ‘greatest threat’ to the oil industry — a claim she has taken as a compliment. These protests send a strong message to the industry, but also show a generational shift, as more people are becoming interested in being environmentally friendly. As more people engage in protests and action against the climate crisis, there is greater recognition for the damage that high greenhouse gas emissions do to our environment.

While it is clear that companies make the biggest impact, we can still play our part. It’s a way to show, as a planet, that we want to protect the environment. The following actions can be taken to reduce your carbon footprint, listed from highest impact to lowest:

  • 1. Having fewer children
  • 2. Living car-free
  • 3. Avoiding one transatlantic trip
  • 4. Buying green/renewable energy
  • 5. Eat a plant-based diet

These small changes in our lives could help to save the planet, but it is more important to try to provoke big change. Boycotting wasteful companies; eating meat-free; joining protests and demonstrations — all of these actions are key to showing big companies that we will not let them destroy the environment anymore and that we want change.