Is Being Eco-Friendly a Scam?
If 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, should you still make an effort to live sustainably?
If you follow climate-related news, you’ve almost certainly seen a particular fact regarding corporate emissions floating around the past couple of years. It was first brought to mainstream media attention after it was published in the 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Report and according to FullFact, it is, unfortunately, true: between the years 1988 and 2015, 71% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions were traced back to just 100 companies.
Upon seeing this troubling statistic, you may feel helpless. If most emissions are linked to just 100 companies, why does the burden fall on you as a consumer to be eco-conscious? You may feel like all the previous efforts you’ve made to live sustainably — efforts that take a lot of time, energy, and often money — are so minuscule in the grand scheme of things that there really is no point to them at all.
Or is there?
If we examine which companies made the Carbon Majors Report list, we find fossil fuel giants ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell. Unsurprising, given we’ve known for decades that burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases, thus contributing to climate change.
However, if you look further into just how these companies made the list, you may be surprised to find that the share of emissions from each of these companies includes those from customers who have bought and used their products. Therefore, if you’ve ever stopped to fill your gas tank at Shell, the emissions you release driving on that tank of gas count towards Shell’s monstrous total.
What does this mean for consumers? Well, it would appear that we still do have a big hand in fossil fuel emissions, even if we aren’t doing the drilling and fracking ourselves. If this is the case, then sustainable changes to our lifestyles don’t seem nearly as trivial.
So, let’s say you want to cut back on your use of fossil fuels, given this information. If you choose to walk to your local grocery store instead of driving, even though it’ll take you much longer, you’re not releasing any emissions and thus benefiting the planet. An easy, sustainable lifestyle change — that is, assuming it’s even possible for you.
For someone living in an urban center, walking as a means of regular transportation is entirely feasible. When I lived in Busan, the second-largest city in South Korea, I walked almost everywhere I needed to go on a regular basis: to work, to the grocery store, to the cafe, etc.
But for someone living in my hometown of Kent, Washington, this isn’t practical. Although Kent is not a small town by any means (the current estimated population is over 132,000 people), it is a sprawling one. Based on Google Maps calculations, it would take me fifty-five minutes at best to walk to the nearest Safeway from my childhood home; in comparison, it’s only a nine-minute drive. For those living in even smaller, more spread-out communities, those times could easily double.
Of course, walking isn’t the only solution to minimizing fossil fuel usage. You could cycle — a task made easier and safer if your city has bike lanes. You could take public transportation, such as the bus, or even the subway if you’re really lucky. But again, that’s assuming you have comprehensive public transportation options where you live. The United States isn’t exactly known for such things.
Unfortunately, until we decide to build a robust public transportation network, or electric cars become affordable options for the average consumer, it would seem that most of us can’t divest much at all from our fossil fuel usage because we lack the infrastructure and incentives. Thus, greenhouse gas emissions continue to plague our atmosphere at an alarming rate, due in large part to our reliance on fossil fuels.
In order to effectively prevent climate catastrophes, we will need to make huge changes on an economic level, like those outlined in the controversial Green New Deal. However, change is usually a bottom-up ordeal; it takes people demanding change to get our local, state, and federal governments to act, and that’s not a quick and easy process.
Does this mean that we should give up our efforts to be environmentally-friendly and focus our attention on getting elected leaders to act? Of course not. The truth is, we should be doing both simultaneously. We can’t wait around for strict regulations or government subsidies. To lessen the effects of climate change, we have to make individual sacrifices, no matter how small they seem, because they do add up over time.
Something as simple as replacing beef with chicken in your meals will reduce your dietary carbon footprint by 50%. You can also make a habit of shopping for secondhand clothes or avoid buying fast fashion since the fashion industry produces 10% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Ditching single-use plastics whenever possible is also impactful, seeing as only 10–13% of all plastics are actually recycled each year.
With the news cycle constantly barraging us with doomsday images of wildfires, hurricanes, and scientists warning us we’re almost too late to mitigate climate change, it’s hard not to feel immobilized or numb. It’s difficult to see how our own efforts to be sustainable are effective, and it’s easy to slip back into old habits. But if we want a future on this planet, it’s going to look a lot different than what we’re doing now because it has to.
We will have to cut back on meat and dairy consumption in the future because the rate at which we consume such things now is unsustainable. We will have to divest from fossil fuels. We will have to produce less waste and reuse or repurpose what we already have. Climate change is not the fault of individuals, save for those individuals who are extremely wealthy and have control over major resources. However, it has been estimated that if everyone on Earth lived like an American, we would need five Earths to support the world’s population, meaning we aren’t doing as much as we could.
While we do need serious economic changes to take place from the top-down, such things take time. The changes we can make on an individual level don’t take nearly as much time, and while they may feel insignificant, they are much more impactful when we make them together. Collective action is often our best weapon; let’s use it to fight for our future.