Yes, I am committed to playing my part to reducing my personal carbon footprint. And yes, it is a good idea to raise awareness of the impacts our behavior and consumptive ways have on the planet.
There is no arguing that programs like Earth Hour (March 26th) do raise some awareness with a large audience. Last year, citizens and companies from 128 countries participated in the one-hour lights off campaign put on by the World Wildlife Foundation.
I realize I might not be popular with the 5 million members of the WWF, but it is just not enough. We just can’t move the needle fast enough to get back to 350 parts per million by us all turning our lights off for an hour.
How many times have we heard the story, if just x million people switched their lightbulbs to CFLs, we could take the equivalent of Y thousand cars off the road?
I have read the statistics and while it sounds impressive, individual baby steps won’t really alter our trajectory. Despite all its real progress towards a low-carbon economy, China continues to add as much as two new coal-powered plants per WEEK to its energy portfolio!
So am I suggesting we all throw in the towel? Heck no!
What I am saying is that while changing our lightbulbs or bringing reusable bags to the grocery story or even taking bigger leaps like greening your home or buying a hybrid make you feel good, it is just not enough even if everyone in the world did it. Don’t get me wrong, these baby steps are needed, and in aggregate they can make a small dent in the problem.
But the real solutions are at the corporate and political level. Go back to some of my last examples. IKEA recently began a phase out of sales of incandescent light bulbs in North America. In 2008, the City of San Francisco began banning plastic bags. This kind of political and corporate leadership can actually move the needle.
Living in North America, it is hard to believe that governments can also lead the way towards a profitable, sustainable, low-carbon future. Federal policy south and north of the border has been pathetic. But there are pockets of progress at the regional level. California’s bold cap and trade program, the Western Climate Initiative, and a requirement to phase out coal fired power plants in Ontario by 2014 are all good examples. Outside of our little bubble in North America, government progress is even more impressive. Most countries in Europe are a long way down the path and even China is doing more to promote a low-carbon economy than the U.S. and Canada.
So am I saying that individuals have no ability to make a real contribution to changing our uncertain future? Absolutely not. Here are my top 3 ways we can be part of the solution:
1.) Vote as if the planet mattered! Not only are rapid and significant changes required to help right this ship, but many of these changes are actually profitable, especially when taking the whole cost solution in mind. Politicians need to be bold in a time of job insecurity and economic struggles if we are to move the needle. Politicians need to know you have their back. Governments play a huge role in this required shift by providing the right carrots and sticks to encourage wide-scale changes in energy policy (e.g. renewable fuel standards), building policies (e.g. densification and green building codes), transportation (increasing funding for mass-transit), emissions reductions (carbon taxes and cap and trade), etc.
2.) Work for a company who gets it! If you have the choice of where you want to work, and you realize that companies can profitably be part of the solution, than why not work for one of those companies? If your company doesn’t get it, why not try to be an intrapreneurial champion for climate capitalism? If that doesn’t work, consider working somewhere else. In prior posts I have written about the impressive progress that companies like GE and Wal-Mart are making to reduce their own footprint and those of their consumers. Look for companies that are voluntarily reporting to the Carbon Disclosure Project, or who have made a commitment to carbon neutrality. The competition for talent, even in today’s economy, can be a driver for corporate change. If that doesn’t work, consider starting your own low-carbon venture.
3.) Live close to where you work and play! One of the single biggest choices someone can make regarding their personal footprint is where you choose to live. Living close to where you work, with accessible public transit, and within walking/cycling distance to restaurants, parks and entertainment can make a massive difference in your carbon footprint (way more than changing your lightbulbs). This also improves your quality of life by spending less time in cars and traffic, allowing more time for family and friends.
Every effort to reduce our impact on the planet is appreciated. However, given the pace of damage we are causing, and the enormous opportunities for profit in transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we need to spend more effort pushing the big levers rather than convincing the world to turn their lights off for an hour.
Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.
This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm