Why Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Is The Last Thing You Should Do

In the Global North we emit around 10 tonnes of CO2 per year (USA and Australia emit significantly more, most European countries emit less). When normal people ask ‘What can I do to tackle climate change?’, the prevailing answer given by scientists, experts and others has generally been to reduce that 10 tonnes to as close to nothing as possible. It can take a massive amount of time, money, space and effort to do this, but many people around the world are bravely trying. On the surface that all sounds like a noble aspiration, and on a personal scale the end result is a complete annihilation of your carbon footprint. Great! But on a global scale, it is a 10 tonne reduction in the context of global emissions of something like 10 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. No matter how well you do at reducing your own emissions, the maximum effect you can have on global emissions is 10 tonnes.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the brilliant idea of the carbon handprint. Your carbon footprint is your negative impact on the world, looking inwardly at your own emissions. Your carbon handprint is your positive impact on the world, looking at emissions outside of your own personal bubble. If your time, money, space and effort was instead focused on how you can increase your carbon handprint, the maximum potential effect you can have on global emissions is 9,999,999,990 tonnes of CO2. And the cherry on top is that the knock on effects of boosting your carbon handprint will likely reduce your own 10 tonne carbon footprint as well.

An Example

If you were keen on reducing your carbon emissions associated with your commute to work, you have a few options. Buy an electric car. Take the slow and infrequent bus. Cycle on the dangerous road, or take the safer, but much longer route. These are the options recommended by the ‘reduce your carbon footprint’ school of thought. They are expensive, inconvenient and dangerous. You would put a lot of extra effort, money and time into each option, and the payoff would be a reduction of a few tonnes of emissions.

The carbon handprint school of thought however, would suggest that you look into the reasons why it is hard for you to commute in a low carbon way. You’d then look for ways to reduce these barriers, which will help you, and in turn help others overcome them. Instead of buying an electric car, push your workplace or the local government to give incentives for low carbon drivers, or to provide electric cars that you can lease. Instead of waiting around for buses every day, use the time and effort to push for improved bus services in your area. Instead of cycling the long way to work every day, use the time to build a group of likeminded citizens who will push the local government to put in cycle lanes, introduce lower speed limits for vehicles, and provide safer cycling equipment.

This way of thinking is all about working smarter, not working harder. You could spend every day for 10 years cycling a long and dangerous route to work, or you could spend one year campaigning for new cycle lanes and then have 9 years of easy, safe cycling. The resulting increase in cycling by hundreds of other people could save hundreds of tonnes of CO2, or more than a lifetime of focusing on a reduced carbon footprint.

By first tackling the root causes of your high carbon behaviour, and making it easier for yourself (and often others) to live a low carbon life, your carbon footprint will more easily, naturally and sustainably come down.

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