Consumers do have power in their pockets when it comes to tackling climate change. The meteoric rise of ESG in the financial services industry, for instance, has been driven by consumer demand. Equally, in the retail sector the term “sustainable” has become a benchmark for any quality clothing brand as a result of customers wanting more ethically sourced and climate positive products.
Behavioural change will also be pivotal to tackling climate change. If we are to move millions of people from petrol cars to electric vehicles and millions more from gas heating to electric heat pumps – putting the prohibitively high costs aside for a minute – people are going to need to make changes to their lives.
But, the heavy lifting on climate change is not going to come from you and I alone. The transition requires an overhauling of the way we manufacture, heat, move, power, farm and much more. It will be the greatest economic transition seen since the industrial revolution. Buying keep cups or energy-efficient light bulbs are good things but they will barely make a dent.
It was an advertising company working for BP who coined the term “carbon footprint”. The big emitters want you to think it’s up to you; putting the onus of reducing emissions on personal choice, rather than via corporate responsibility. The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 to enable people to measure their own emissions.
The same kind of messages promoting personal responsibility are being pedalled from businesses and governments alike. In the summer, we were told by the Government’s former Cop26 spokesperson Allegra Stratton that “you don’t really need to rinse your dishes before they go into the dishwasher”. Last week, the major energy company Ovo told customers to “cuddle their pets” to stay warm and conserve energy. These futile and somewhat patronising suggestions are just a distraction.
It may be true that people eat too much meat and fly and drive too much. But, getting to net zero emissions requires fundamental changes to our economy and our infrastructure, which can only be implemented by those in positions of power: businesses and governments.
Policies need to actively shift behaviour, particularly in transport and home-heating. For example, the Mayor of London’s implementation of transport policies such as the Ultra-Low Emission Zone have been some of the most effective measures in tackling pollution: between 2016 and 2020 areas with illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide fell by 94 per cent in London. More recently, he has called for road pricing (pay by the mile) to bring down the number of cars on London streets.
These policies genuinely have an impact and steer the behaviour of citizens by hitting them where it hurts: their pockets. But they are also, to many, politically unpalatable. So the myth of personal responsibility is a useful tool. But it risks delaying the state and corporate climate action necessary. It suggests that all we need to get to net zero is to save the odd kilowatt of energy here, skip a holiday abroad there and we will miraculously hit the target of net zero emissions by 2050. This is a fallacy.
We should of course do our bit. But, it would be a mistake to think Veganuary will be the end of climate change. Our policymakers hold the keys to net zero, don’t let them distract you.