I hadn’t known before that the idea of a carbon footprint was deliberately promoted by an oil company. But now that I know – thanks to an informative article from Mark Kaufman – I’m not really surprised.
Why would an oil company push us to think about our carbon footprints? For the same reason that car companies in the 1920s created PR campaigns on how to be a safe pedestrian at the same time as they lobbied against speed limits. Putting the focus on individual behaviour distracts us from what really matters: the things we can do to change the system.
Of course, it’s easy for this argument to sound self-serving, especially coming from someone like me, an overconsuming western European. That’s why it was helpful of some researchers at MIT to point out that even a homeless person living off soup kitchens has an unsustainably high carbon footprint, if they live in an intensively fossil fuelled economy. The bottom line is this: reducing your footprint is a good thing, but it’s not what matters most.
What really matters is your point of leverage: what are you well-positioned to do, to bring about system change? You can think of it as comparative advantage: what can you do better than most people to bring about system change? We all agree system change in the emitting sectors of the economy is what’s needed to solve climate change, so let’s think seriously about how we can make it happen. It won’t happen by itself.
The distinction between footprint and leverage applies to any entity at any scale. Here are some examples.
If you live in a democracy, your vote might be your point of leverage. Governments have the power to re-write laws, restructure markets, and replace infrastructure systems. It doesn’t matter if you walk to the polling booth or drive there in a tank. Vote for the party that will do something about climate change. And you could do more than just vote. An energy minister I once worked for received more letters from members of the public complaining about wind turbines spoiling the view than letters asking the government to do something about climate change. If you have a democracy, don’t waste it.
If you’re an activist, your point of leverage might be suggesting pragmatic new solutions. Or it might be protest. As another good article on this subject pointed out, it would have been a shame if Greta had stayed at home worrying about her recycling instead of going to sit outside school and hold up a sign.
If you have professional expertise, it’s likely that putting this to use is your best point of leverage. If you’re an architect, design energy-efficient buildings; if you’re a teacher, tell the next generation what it needs to know. Most important of all, think about how you can influence your…
Many businesses these days are setting themselves net zero targets. That’s a good thing, to be encouraged, as long as they are serious about it. And yet…
If you’re a battery manufacturing company, I don’t care how many megawatt-hours of our not-yet-entirely-clean electricity you burn through, if you can invent some better batteries that will help the world decarbonise road transport more quickly.
If you’re an advertising company, you can eat beefburgers at lunch with your clients every day as far as I’m concerned. I really want to know if you’ll refuse to give any business to newspapers that still promote commentators who deny climate change and spread misinformation about solutions.
If you’re an airline company, for goodness’ sake don’t expect us to thank you for planting trees to offset your emissions. They will all burn down anyway. Tell your suppliers to figure out how to make zero emission planes, and tell the government what regulations you need to make it commercially viable to operate them.
It’s not just businesses. If you’re a university, insulating your buildings probably isn’t your best contribution to solving the challenge of the century; it’s what you research and teach that matters. If you’re a church, sticking solar panels on the roof is a good gesture, but moral authority is your point of leverage; it’s what you preach that matters.
System change happens when each person, and each organisation, pulls the levers that they are best able to pull. The transition from cesspools to sewers happened because doctors discovered and communicated the health risks of sewage in the streets, engineers developed pipeline technology, and governments installed water infrastructure. It didn’t happen because everyone stopped shitting.
It might seem odd to extend this distinction to countries. It’s clear that governments must act to reduce emissions from all parts of the economy, with the aim of reducing their national carbon footprints to zero as quickly as possible. This is especially true for countries that are large, or rich, or both.
But the options available to any country depend on the conditions created by others. Scientists, activists, innovators and policymakers in the US, Japan, Australia, Germany and China have made cheap solar power available for all the world to use.
If we want to speed up global decarbonisation, then we need each country to think not only about its footprint, but also about its point of leverage for system change at the global scale.
Leverage can come from innovation combined with natural resources. Morocco’s leadership in concentrated solar power, and Kenya’s leadership in geothermal energy, have helped make these into viable options for other countries.
Leverage can come from thought leadership combined with moral authority. Through the Bridgetown Agenda, Barbados may do more than any other country to increase developing countries’ access to affordable finance for investment in clean technologies.
Leverage can come from geographical position. Egypt and Panama could speed the transition to zero emission shipping, if they make compliance with tough standards a condition for passing through their canals.
Buying power can be a huge source of leverage. The European Union, as the world’s largest single market, has this in spades. The standards it sets for cars already influence manufacturers all over the world. Its diplomacy ought to be focused on coordinating this buying power with other large markets.
Producer power is significant too. China, producer of over half the world’s steel, can dictate the pace of change in that sector if it coordinates with other large producers. But early in a transition, you don’t have to be large to be influential. Sweden can have outsized impact from developing the world’s first near-zero emission steel plant, if it thoroughly shares the learning from this with others.
Progress to net zero emissions globally will not be fast if each country only looks inward. If each does what it must at home, but also looks outward, recognizing and acting on its opportunity for leverage at the global scale, change could happen faster than we expect.
Focusing our efforts
In complex systems like the economy and society, cause and effect are usually disproportionate. Small interventions can lead to large changes – the well-known ‘butterfly effect’. The opposite is also true: large interventions can have very little effect, if they are poorly targeted. That’s why it’s worth thinking carefully about where best to focus our efforts.
One of those early oil company adverts urged you to ‘find out your carbon footprint’. Now that meeting climate goals requires us to decarbonise the global economy five times faster than we have done so far, I’d like to suggest a new principle: find your point of leverage – and use it.