What’s your climate shadow?

Discussions around personal impact on climate change centre on your carbon footprint, a method to aggregate your individual impact on the environment, from what you eat to how often you fly or drive and how big your house is. The idea of a carbon footprint grew out of the concept of an ecological footprint born in the early 1990s. You’ve probably come across one of the many different carbon footprint calculators measuring different parts of your life — but how useful are they really?

A footprint calculator fails to show the full impact of our activities, focusing on the minutia of our existence, our day to day actions. They imply that climate change and environmental pollution is a personal, individual responsibility, shifting both the blame and the onus to act from corporations and states to ordinary people, encouraging actions which may have little impact compared to those of much larger entities. By focusing on our individual actions we fail to hold corporations to account.

Creating a greater positive impact

While of course we as individuals can make an impact, carbon footprint alone does not show the whole picture. It is more helpful to take a wide-angle holistic approach when measuring our impact on the planet. For example, whose flights have more of a negative impact: the climate scientist travelling to educate and research, or the marketing executive for an oil company?

Your climate shadow

Thinking about our climate shadow, a term coined by climate journalist Emma Pattee, is more useful here as it measures not just the carbon we produce but every aspect of our lives. The choices we make, what we talk about, whom we interact with, what we eat, and where we live. How often do you discuss climate change with your friends and colleagues or lobby your local MP? Where do you shop? Where do you bank? (Hopefully with B Corp Triodos!) What do you do in your free time?

I visualize my climate shadow being made of three parts: my consumption, my choices, and my attention.

— Emma Pattee, creator of the climate shadow concept

One example is covered in this article by Pattee. Putting solar panels on your house noticeably reduces your personal environmental impact — but starting the conversation at your workplace to get panels installed there, or advocating a switch to renewable energy providers, has an even greater impact. This requires a shift in our approach to sustainability, focusing our actions as individuals on those with the most impact.

Moving beyond personal actions

This kind of thinking helps us move beyond small, personal actions to considering how we can make a bigger difference, making the kind of choices necessary to avoid and mitigate climate catastrophe.

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