If you are further interested in this topic, be sure to check out our upcoming event Countdown, in collaboration with Globus.
Climate change and sustainability are two terms that often appear in the same conversations. Our understanding of climate change has increased significantly, being commonly defined as a change in global climate patterns due to higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As individuals, we are encouraged to live a more sustainable lifestyle to reduce our impact on the environment. In the last few decades, we have seen significant technological advancements and alternatives to everyday products, aimed at reducing our impact upon the climate. These efforts have produced positive outcomes with EU greenhouse gas emissions reducing by 24% between 1990 and 2019. However, we lack a true understanding of the varying levels of sustainability that these solutions hold.
In our increasingly climate-conscious world, an individual faces a variety of solutions to help combat climate change. One of the most popular ways that people choose to reduce their impact on the environment is through consuming more sustainable food and drink products. A clear example of such an alternative is non-dairy or plant-based milk. These products require less land, less water, and less energy during production, cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. Almond milk specifically generates the lowest amount of emissions, as their trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide whilst growing. Overall, plant-based milks are better environmentally than dairy, but even this small solution has subtle drawbacks. Almond milk was the most popular dairy-milk alternative in the US in 2019, but producing just a single glass consumes 130 pints of water; the highest water production of any dairy alternative. Not only are there negative environmental impacts, but also social and economic impacts, with the production of coconut milk contributing to the exploitation of workers and the destruction of rainforests.
That said, we shouldn’t stop using plant-based milks, as they are still better alternatives compared to dairy and some have a more positive impact, such as hazelnut milk. Hazelnut trees reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are ‘environmentally superior’ as they are pollinated by the wind and require. However, it is important to note that there is a lack of awareness that even our so-called ‘sustainable’ solutions have their disadvantages too. To increase individual levels of sustainability we need to increase our knowledge about even our more sustainable alternatives.
Secondly, more people are switching to using an electric car each year, often to cut down on their personal carbon emissions. These vehicles don’t directly emit greenhouse gases like the more widespread Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, but many run on electricity still produced from fossil fuels in various parts of the world. The issue of electric vehicles (EVs) is complex, and the comparison to ICE vehicles is not simple. As the manufacturing and production processes of EVs alter significantly around the world, their level of sustainability changes. Carbon Brief found that ‘lifecycle emissions estimate for batteries produced in the US tend to be notably lower than those produced in Asia’. Moreover, 50% of the emissions that come from battery lifecycles are due to the electricity used in battery production.
Despite these initial ‘carbon costs’ due to production, a significant advantage of EVs is that their use becomes carbon neutral after a matter of years compared to the use of an ICE car. Therefore, it is vital that battery production plants are powered by renewable energy sources to increase the sustainability of EVs. Generally, they are more environmentally friendly than ICE vehicles, however, perhaps there is too heavy a focus on personal vehicles in general & there should be greater emphasis on the importance of public transport. It is this discussion and comparison of ‘climate change solutions’ that needs to be addressed.
With these two examples, it is clear that despite there being a variety of ways for individuals to combat climate change, many options are more complex than they seem. It is therefore imperative that we have a greater level of awareness surrounding the different solutions, to enable individuals to make the best choices possible.
It’s important to note that this responsibility doesn’t and shouldn’t lie in the hands of the individual completely. Individual efforts, despite being valuable, can only combat climate change so much and shouldn’t overshadow the responsibility of large corporations – who are arguably the largest stakeholders in reducing climate change due to their level of influence and involvement in negative environmental impacts. A report from 2018 revealed that a third of greenhouse gas emissions since 1965 were due to only the top 20 fossil fuel firms. Not only have firms lacked the incentive to shift to renewable energy sources, they also have long controlled the narrative around climate change. British Petroleum, a crude oil company, has often used marketing and branding to acknowledge the existence of climate change whilst understating their own involvement. Various advertisements stating, ‘What on earth is a carbon footprint?’ and ‘What size is your carbon footprint?’ immediately shift the blame of climate-impacting activities to the individual.
This also brings into question the levels of responsibility that different countries should have. With the US being responsible for a quarter of all emissions since 1751, is it fair to hold all countries to the same degree of accountability? In a way, developed countries have not just a greater ability, but a greater responsibility to make change and present sustainable choices to the rest of the world.
This conversation has been present for years now, but will continue to occur. We consistently see demands for greater action from governments and large companies, while also creating realistic aims for large-scale investments in renewable energy and raising awareness of different levels of sustainability.
Written by Lauren Walker
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Lauren Walker — not TEDxWarwick.
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