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INTERVIEWER: If you could sum up this topic in one snappy phrase, what would it be?
It's dangerous for us to obsess too much about our personal carbon footprints.
The conversation around climate action has become dominated by intense debates around personal behaviour. For example, should I be driving a smaller car instead of one of these? Should I go vegan? Or should I make sure not to have children? The danger is that these debates could crowd out some of the really important questions that we also need to be asking.
So there's some interesting psychology at play here. Because on one level the carbon footprint concept can make you feel quite empowered because it gives you a million different things that you can do. You can switch off the lights when you leave the room, you can cycle instead of driving, you can eat more local produce, and so on. So that feels empowering, but it's also disempowering at the same time. Because deep down and instinctively, all of us know that this isn't going to be enough.
This feeling of disempowerment is very real, and it seems to be having some disturbing effects on young people all over the world. A recent Lancet study of 10,000 16 to 25-year-olds in 10 different countries found that 55 per cent agreed with the statement "humanity is doomed." Let's get one thing straight. Individual actions against climate change can help. If we all eat less meat and fly less, it helps, but it's not going to fix the problem.
The International Energy Agency put out a very influential report on how we could get to net zero by 2050. And it saw only 4 per cent of those emissions cuts coming from purely personal actions, like flying less or walking to work. So to really test this concept of minimising personal carbon footprints we could try cutting our personal consumption to an absolute minimum and see what happens to global carbon emissions. Well, actually, we've done that, haven't we, during 2020 in these lockdowns that happened all over the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and global carbon dioxide emissions fell by only about 5 per cent. The impact that you can have as an individual consumer is really constrained as long as you live within an economic system that is founded upon heavily carbon emitting activities.
The food that we eat, the materials that are used to build our homes, the electricity generation that keeps our lights on, each of these pumps vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere every day. And we've now realised that we need to bring this to an end as quickly as possible. That requires a fundamental change in the way that the global economy operates, and that's going to require serious action by governments, public officials all over the world.
The really important thing to stress here is that you as an individual are not powerless at all. People sometimes talk about the three C's. That's consumers, careers, and citizens. As a consumer, as we've been discussing, the impact that you can have is limited, but it's not zero. Second of the three C's, career. If you're lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a positive impact in this space in the work that you do, well, don't waste that.
But the third thing and perhaps the most important, the third C, citizens. Each of us is a citizen. Each of us can take part in pushing towards the policy changes, the rule changes that we need to see that will really put the global economy and the planet and humanity as a whole on a better, safer, fairer course. You can contribute towards this drive using your vote, if you live in a democracy, or standing for elected office yourself, engaging with your public representatives or with your peers or with your community, taking part in these public conversations, joining peaceful protests. Perhaps it's time for all of us to start thinking about ourselves a little bit less as consumers and a little bit more as citizens.