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Individual action vs system change

Is it up to individuals to take action or will it take system change to solve the climate crisis?

FlightFree UK
04 Jun 6 min read

Ever since Thatcher uttered the words ‘climate change’ back in the 1980s, we have argued about how to avoid it. Is it up to individuals to adjust their lifestyles, or is it up to the government to collectively reduce our carbon emissions?

Size matters

We have long been told by environmental organisations that there are many things we can do to reduce our carbon footprints: do your recycling, change your lightbulbs, use renewable energy. But what good is it if one person gives up their car when many thousands of others don’t? Why bother stopping flying when 100,000 flights take off every day? Individual change can seem utterly pointless in the face of these stats.

In the recent lockdown, the relatively low drop in emissions as a result of the sudden halt of carbon-heavy activities such as driving and flying (projected to be 5.5 % globally this year), has been used to show that individual change doesn’t make a bit of difference. We’ve stopped doing everything we’ve been told is bad – yet still, we haven’t even got close to the amount we need to reduce emissions by to avert climate breakdown (7.6% each year this decade). Does this show that our individual actions are a bit, well, pointless?

Not necessarily. The problem with looking at the picture globally is that it is too broad brush – individual context is important. For example, the emissions drop in the short term has been much more significant, and in localised areas such as Paris it's been huge. But the global picture has long been used to argue against taking action: "Aviation is only responsible for 2% of global emissions so don't worry about it,” we’re told. Well, actually it’s more like 5%, and that’s mainly because only 5% of the global population has ever been on a plane. But the more important consideration is that looking at it on an individual level tells a very different story.

Personal context

Here in the west we fly a lot, and we Brits fly the most. If you stop flying, you can cut your carbon footprint in half. That makes a significant difference when the average UK footprint is approx 10 tonnes of CO2 per year, as opposed to less than a single tonne in the developing world, and the 2.3 tonnes that’s been recommended by the IPCC as sustainable. A short haul flight can add between 0.5. and 1.5 tonnes to your footprint; long haul could be anywhere between 2 and 6 tonnes. If you fly, your footprint is likely to be higher than the average. If you fly a lot, it will be significantly higher.

So if you as an individual can make changes that reduce your footprint from way-above-average to sustainable, that is a meaningful, powerful and absolutely vital part of reducing our emissions.

Change driven from above

But these changes are more likely to have a planet-saving effect when we take them en-masse. And mass change is controlled by the system, isn’t it? It’s government intervention that makes these sustainable choices the natural choice, and even beyond that, the norm. Solar panels on roofs as a matter of course, for example. Enabling off-shore wind which, together with No New Coal would make renewable energy cheap and available to all. Redesigning our streets so cycling is a more welcoming form of transport than driving.

And in terms of aviation, there is a huge number of things that the government can and should do to reduce the number of flights that take off from UK airports: a fair taxation system including taxing aviation fuel, cutting domestic routes where a direct rail link exists, and reducing the amount of advertising, to name but a few. And lifting the barriers to climate-friendly travel by making trains cheaper, more plentiful, and easier to book.

But why would the government introduce these things if there is no demand for it? Politics is driven by, among other things, economics and policies popular with voters. If voters don’t show that they want climate-friendly travel, why would they get it? So there it comes back to our individual choices. As consumers and voters, we hold a huge amount of power.

The psychology of change

Being a behaviour change organisation, Flight Free UK analyses what leads people to behave in a certain way, and how this can be altered. We know that information is vital to people making a climate friendly choice. “It’s not because we don’t care, it’s because we don’t know,” says Maja Rosén of the Swedish flygfritt campaign. “I didn’t know the climate impact, and when I saw the numbers I stopped straight away,” says traveller Evelina Utterdahl.

So information is key, and it would be far more effective if the messaging were coming from the state. When legislation was passed to include health warnings on cigarette packets, 14% of smokers reduced the amount they smoked, with 5% quitting altogether. Imagine if health warnings were attached to airline tickets? “Your flight, London to Lima, 3.25 tonnes CO2. Average annual carbon footprint of someone living in Perú, 1.74 tonnes”

In other words, your return flight to Machu Picchu creates almost double per passenger the carbon emissions of someone actually living there. Might that information make us think twice about our holiday?

Social shift

But emissions information won’t convince everyone. Some are more influenced by social norms, i.e. wanting to be like everyone else, as we humans tend to do. If everybody around you flies, you won’t think twice about doing the same. If those around you stop flying, you are more likely to question the amount you fly, and indeed research by Steve Westlake has shown this to be the case. By changing our lifestyles we demonstrate to others that it's possible as well as desirable, and this leads to our individual actions having an impact beyond simply reducing our own emissions.

This kind of change doesn’t rely on the system for it to happen, but the influence can work the other way. The growing vegan movement is a good illustration of this. As little as six years ago, requests for a vegan meal in a restaurant would have resulted in puzzled looks and raised eyebrows. Now, most places offer a separate vegan menu. Even though those following a vegan diet are still in a minority, industry has catered for the trend, not only satisfying existing vegans but enabling and encouraging others to go that way too.

And let’s take an example of behavioural norms from our current situation of Covid-19. The government could insist we wear masks, or leave it up to us to make that choice. As Stuart Capstick noticed, you’re likely to feel awkward if you’re the only one who has chosen to wear a mask, and you probably won't bother in future. On the other hand, if you’re the only one *not* in a face mask, you’ll make sure you remember it next time.

Social norms are important: social acceptance and social modelling leads to social shift. If people stop flying, it will become socially awkward to be the one jetting off on holiday, rather than it being socially awkward to be the one to call it out.

If we continue to fly, we are part of the system. No matter how we feel about that flight, or if we know about the emissions, we are supporting the industry by buying that ticket. And worse, we’re buying into the social norm that says flights are OK. We’re allowing things to remain as they are, and we’re sending the message to our peers, our industry and our government that we’re OK with business as usual. That the system is fine.

So which is it – individual action or system change?

It's clear that the two things are heavily intertwined. It is never one or the other – it is always both. Individual action can lead to system change, and system change can influence us as individuals. Putting structures in place enables us to make climate friendly choices, and we can demand those structures both by campaigning for them and by showing with our actions the kinds of changes we want to see.

And while we can argue that our one action doesn't make a difference, if we don't take that action, it definitely won't make a difference. It's a cliche, but Ghandi was right when he said, be the change you wish to see in the world. And let’s remember, our individual actions are never just that – there is always a ripple effect.

To reference a more modern example, Greta Thunberg famously sailed across the Atlantic ocean to attend climate talks in the US, and said during the journey, ‘By not flying you don’t only reduce your own emissions, you send a message that the climate crisis is real.’

And that’s what we should be doing. Not expecting ‘someone else’ to act, or to solve things, whether that is other individuals or the government. We all have a vital role to play in averting climate disaster, and we should never underestimate the power of our own actions, and their potential to influence the system to create lasting change.

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