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Low Carbon Lifestyles

Can my individual actions for emissions reduction make a difference to climate change efforts?

Let me start off by asking you the following questions:

  • Will you change your meat-based food habits to at least partially vegetarian if that will make you healthier?
  • Will you become more energy efficient at home if that significantly cuts down your monthly electricity bill?
  • Will you use a bicycle for local errands, and use stairs instead of the elevator if these improve your cardiovascular health?
  • Will you reuse, recycle and upcycle your old clothes if that gets you the coveted local sustainability champion award?
  • Will you work on weekend community projects to keep the local lakes clean if that gets you exciting friends? 

Most normal human beings would have said Yes to most, if not all, the above questions.

If you noticed, I never once asked if you would like to make a difference to the world.

A small, small being

The world emits about 52 billion tons equivalent of CO2 every year, about 6.5 tons per human on average. About 25% of these emissions happen from power generation, 22% from industrial energy activities (a good part of it beng industrial heating),18% from agriculture & livestock related activities, 15% from transport and the rest from assorted energy & non-energy activities. The sheer complexity of such a web of emission sources alone can be daunting to any individual. 

If that was complex, here comes the humungous: You are one of the (almost) 8 billion humans on earth - that’s 1/8000000000 . Not far from being a small drop in the ocean.

You and I happen to be a small drop within a complex web. Can anything you do make a difference - unless your last name is Biden, Modi, Gates or Musk?

The instinctive answer is No. And even a non-instinctive answer - delivered after a bit of thought - will be No.

But you may be wrong. Individual actions can make a difference, and I will use two different perspectives to tell you how - let me call them the conventional logic and the Narsi logic.

Conventional logic: Collectively, our actions can make - and are making - a difference

I’m not going to go philosophical. Let’s say I have some reasonably strong data and a fortunate bit of history to support my argument.

The International Energy Agency projects that 40% of emissions cuts needed to decarbonize the global economy by 2050 will come from policies over which the public has little control — like making more electricity from renewable energy or using cleaner technologies in industry,  while just 4-5% are expected to come from purely personal actions like flying less or walking to work. I see you giving that wry smile, “I told you Narsi, didn’t I?”

Hold on. We have just spoken about 45%, there’s the other 55%.

According to the same intelligence folks at IEA, the remaining 55% comes from changes that need a mix of government action and active consumer choices. Think of subsidies and mandates when thinking of government actions and you buying electric cars, installing a heat pump or better insulating your home when thinking of consumer choices.

In both - government action and active consumer choices - you and I can have a role to play. In fact, I would say that each affects the other. Government actions that can facilitate more sustainable consumer decisions can obviously spur demand for those products - think of cheaper electric cars because of subsidies. Active consumer choices and actions can influence government actions. For instance, should a large percentage of consumers in a state wish to go solar, it becomes imperative on the government to do something about it - and this becomes even more of an imperative if a neighbouring state does that!

Then there’s another less obvious dimension of individual action. An individual’s action taken to cut emissions - say, by using a bicycle instead of a car for local errands - could lead to a positive cascading effect with his family and friends doing the same. And when this trend becomes fairly large, it spurs businesses to invest in it. The rise of veganism, for instance, has encouraged companies to invest in tastier meat alternatives that make it easier for meat-eaters to choose a plant burger over a steak. There are many examples worldwide where local communities have gone low carbon because of the actions initiated by a few - there could be many, many more if only some of us become the ones to ignite the spark.

Finally, individual action can spur another key stakeholder, at least in democracies - your vote. Voting and putting pressure on politicians can also trigger policy changes that shift society. A scaled version of this movement can result in completely new governments as evidenced by the rise of green parties worldwide - here’s a detailed news report on the rise of green parties worldwide. I'd rate this as the most effective example of individual action resulting in a large scale difference.

For none of these actions will you be able to draw direct correlations between your actions and results, but you can go to bed satisfied that you have done something that has a good likelihood of being effective.

All of the above still do not convince quite a few of my friends, who feel that pure individual actions are still not the real driver for most of the above.

Which brings me to the Narsi logic, something I found resonated a lot better with those very friends.

Narsi logic: It's not about the environment, it's about you

This perspective makes correlations simple and personal.

As I mentioned earlier, you simply cannot correlate individual actions to even local - leave alone global - environmental deliverables.We are not playing a singles tennis match, and even there, such correlations are not perfect as the result depends on what the guy on the other side of the net does!

But let me take you back to the questions I asked right at the start. Many of the low carbon activities - walking or bicycling for short errands, having the AC at an optimal (and not too cold) temperature, eating less meat and more vegetables, taking the stairs instead of the lift, running around a bit to sun dry your clothes instead of guzzling energy in your washing machine - can make you more fit & physically and mentally, reduce expenses, get you useful friends and networks, and even perhaps make you a local celebrity, even if for just 15 minutes.

A good many of these personal choices and actions thus have the twin advantages of lower carbon emissions and higher individual benefits, and thus works well whether you are an idealist or a hard-nosed realist.

If you are an idealistic bloke, think of the former (environmental benefits) when you undertake these actions.

If you are the sort of person who asks What's in it for me? - and you will belong to the large majority - you pick the latter (personal benefits). Under this construct, even in the worst case scenario when your actions had made no difference to the planet, you still win - personally.

All questions at ASK Narsi