by Miles Martin
By now we are all aware of the huge environmental crisis presented by climate change. We hear about it on the news constantly, and we are reminded of it again every time we go to throw something away.
We are regularly encouraged to take action to reduce our individual impact on the environment by “going green.” And while recycling, reducing food waste, and remembering to turn off the lights are all noble things to do, they do not have as big an impact as you might think in the grand scheme of things.
To solve any problem, it’s critical to find the source. And climate change is no exception. Small individual actions do not make a huge impact in solving the climate crisis because they are not a major cause of the problem.
The real root of the problem is big industries.
How Industries are the Bigger Problem
While it can seem like every small “not so green” action, like throwing away a plastic cup, must be destroying the planet bit by bit, don’t forget – that cup was there before you picked it up. It was put there by manufacturers, distributers, and retailers who have no idea who you are or why you wanted it. They produced the cup because they assumed (in this case correctly) that somebody would buy it. But you are not directly responsible for that cup, even if you use it and throw it away.
When it comes to climate change, individuals are statistically blameless. A recent report from CDP (Carbon Data Project) revealed that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Twenty-five (25) corporations are responsible for just over half of emissions over the same time period. Here are some of the biggest offenders by industry:
Companies include: Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, Exxon Mobile, National Iranian Oil Company Shell, BP
This is by far the biggest contributor to climate change. In fact, if you go back far enough, many activities across industries that contribute to climate change can be traced back to burning fossil fuels.
These companies extract sources of energy like oil and coal from the Earth and sell them to individuals or other industries that need them – which is unfortunately pretty much everybody.
Companies include: Fonterra, Daily Farmers of America, Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS.
Agriculture contributes about 10% of global emissions according to the EPA, and it does so in a few ways. First, large-scale agricultural systems in developed nations require a lot of fuel to transport supplies and equipment, as well as the food itself.
Second, the agricultural process itself introduces its own greenhouse gases like methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from excess nitrogen in the soil. These are not the same gases as those released by burning fossil fuels, but they are still greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Companies include: Exxon Mobile, Chevron, Boeing, General Motors, Ford
Manufacturing produces about 22% of emissions according to the EPA. A lot of the big-hitting manufacturing companies are the same as those for the energy industry, because many oil companies also produce plastic (like Exxon Mobile).
Industrial emissions can classified into direct and indirect emissions. Direct emissions are from the direct burning of fuel, while indirect emissions are from using electricity generated at a power plant. Given that every factory in the modern world uses electricity in some capacity, these indirect emissions are a major factor in manufacturing emissions.
While there is still a ways to go, there has been some progress to date on making industries change. Here are a few success stories in larger climate change policy:
Why Industries Stay on Top
Though industries can only produce these astronomical emissions while we continue to use and purchase their products, it’s difficult for consumers to make a huge impact because we need these products and alternatives are not always available. So consumers appear to have the power but are often trapped by large corporations.
Plastics are a great example of this problem. Production of plastic is a massive contributor to climate change because plastic begins its life as fossil fuels, and end up in landfills or the ocean where they break down into toxic microplastics. Worse still, plastics are often incinerated, flooding the atmosphere with all the carbon used to make them.
But as evil as plastic may seem, most regular people absolutely need it. It would be nearly impossible to go a whole day without using plastic. Components of your cell phone, computer, car, house, and almost everything else you use are all made of plastic. Plastic is also used for broader societal needs like medical supplies and equipment for law enforcement and first responders.
So as much as industries would like us to think that solving climate change is all about individual choices, there is clearly a much larger issue here. And it is one that industries are avoiding. To date, no company has officially committed itself to reducing its own emissions and those of its products to align with science-based goals of limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 °C (we are currently at over 1.0 °C).
Industries are waiting for us to make the change. And while it’s difficult, there are some things that you can do, and it’s not all about recycling either.
What you can do to help
While it may seem like the industries contributing to climate change are all-powerful and there’s nothing an individual can do, this isn’t entirely true. Remember, these industries ultimately rely on consumers to purchase their products and services. No business can run without its customers – and that means you.
Since an industry’s main goal is to make money – we as the consumers do hold some power. The reason large corporations are not operating more sustainably is because we have not produced enough demand for it.
Producing this demand is easier said than done, since we often passively support big industries out of necessity. For example – Many products on our grocery store shelf are a result of unsustainable agriculture, and they are delivered from farms to warehouses to supermarkets by trucks, planes, or barges all fueled by big oil.
While changing industry practices isn’t as easy as turning off a light switch, here are a few things you can do:
It would not be fair to say that individual efforts have absolutely no impact on climate change. However, the impact of individual choices is not about your specific “carbon footprint,” but rather about the pressure put onto larger businesses to make changes in response to consumer needs.
So while you can forgive yourself for occasionally forgetting to recycle, leaving the lights on, or driving your car instead of taking the bus, we still have an important role to play in saving our planet – forcing those who can save the planet to actually do so.
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