Top 3 Ways to REALLY Move the Needle on Climate Change

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D. CO2 IMPACT

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.

Twitter: boydcohen

This series will use the hashtag #climatcaptlsm


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 Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.Twitter: boydcohen

4 responses

  1. Boyd. One of the biggest things that needs to be communicated to people is the embodied energy in products they buy. For example, a Prius, like all cars, has a gigantic embodied energy.

    People need to be made aware that if they purchase something that is made from materials extracted, processed refined and finally manufactured elsewhere, that they are still responsible for all those carbon emissions, habitat destruction, waste generation, transport etc. They cannot imagine that because it all happens in some other country that it remains that country’s responsibility to reduce the emissions ultimately caused by the purchase of new products.

  2. Nick, I definitely agree with you that embodied energy is an important metric when evaluating the footprint of companies’ products and is often overlooked. However, when looking at the lifecycle footprint of most products, more frequently it is the use of those products (e.g. cars, TVs, washing machines, airplanes), that really causes problems.

    Speaking of products for a minute, I appreciate that Chico Bag is making a significant effort to introduce reusable bags for its consumers. Again I do feel that baby steps and incremental changes to consumer behavior are important. However, my point with this blog was specifically to highlight that incremental solutions, even in aggregate are not enough to move the needle fast enough to thwart the worst of climate change. I am not suggesting people stop using reusable bags (or not to adopt their use in the first place) but rather to focus more of their efforts and energy on needle-shifting activities like supporting politicians who take bold action to thwart climate change.

  3. Boyd I really doubt that anyone thinks turning off lights for an hour will fix the problem. And voting, working, and living close to one’s planet is a good idea. Let’s also keep in mind that big events with a simple buy-in (turn off your lights) can be a good first step for individuals. Managing your company’s campaign to participate in Earth Hour can be a good first step for new leaders. And if we can get individuals to adopt behavior changes that might seem very simple at first but lead to a mindset change, that CAN help solve the problem. Even if that’s not good enough, it gets people off the sidelines. And don’t forget — the same individuals whom we’re asking to turn off lights, shun plastic bags, or bike to work once in a while are sometimes the people who lead the larger institutions with real influence. Change these leaders simple behaviors, get them thinking about the bigger issues, THEN remind them that the little things are insufficient. :-)

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