Back in late August of 2019, news coverage was often dominated by climate change. On Aug. 28., Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic via boat, so that her trip would not, as The Washington Post reported, “add carbon to the atmosphere.” Two months later, Reuters reported that one in five Americans were choosing to fly less in response to Greta’s activism, and this trend was worrying airlines that feared declining demand. Now, in 2023, with reports that “flight shaming” — socially pressuring others to not fly on airplanes due to their carbon emissions — will return, it is worth asking the question if this climate guilt and social pressure should return at all.
The answer is no. Well, not necessarily. It depends on the purpose of the flight and what alternatives there were.
What too often all of these reports fail to acknowledge is something that Greta Thunberg freely admits herself:
“I have never said that people should stop flying . . . I think that we need to move away from focusing on individual actions . . . because we need to focus on the bigger picture. Of course, stop flying is a way of activism to . . . send a message . . . that we need to do something about this . . . I didn’t stop flying . . . to lower my carbon footprint.”
Regardless of what one Nobel Prize-nominated climate activist has to say, it is worth thinking about — as is the phrase “carbon footprint” itself, which was widely popularized by oil company BP in the mid-2000s. The goal of this marketing was to assign responsibility for carbon emissions, and as a result the climate crisis, to the individual.
Front pages and trending stories often discuss the alleged blatant carelessness of celebrities, shamelessly emitting greenhouse gasses without a care in the world, like in August 2022 when Taylor Swift’s private jet was found to have emitted 1,184.8 times “more than the average person’s total annual emissions.” But what often gets left out of those discussions is what makes up the lower end of the emissions spectrum in the United States: the actions of average Americans.
In 2008, three years after BP’s carbon footprint campaign, an MIT study found that while the average American’s annual carbon emissions were 20 metric tons, the average emissions among the homeless, living in shelters and eating from soup kitchens, were calculated at 8.5 tons of CO2 emissions annually. Now fifteen years later in 2023, according to a study which calculated average emissions based on geodemographics in the United States, those with the lowest incomes were still emitting 6.4 tons of CO2 annually, which is over 900% higher than necessary emissions per capita in 2050 to meet the goals of the most recent 2021 United Nations Glasgow Climate Pact and 2016 Paris Agreement.
These are not people with private jets; this is not a problem which can be moralized and solved by individual action even with collective behavioral change. As stated by Oxford’s Dr. Benjamin Franta in Mashable’s excellent article about carbon footprints, “as long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”
Some consumption can be reduced to decrease emissions — not driving when it is not needed for example — but everyday consumption of goods and services is inherently emitting carbon dioxide when the economy runs on fossil fuels. While we can cut back on wasteful consumption, there is a limit to the emissions people can reasonably reduce without sacrificing welfare.
Let me be clear: these figures are not cause for nihilism, nor are they cause for wasteful behavior. We should define wasteful emissions as emissions that are not being utilized with purpose, rather than defining simply emitting greenhouse gasses as wasteful. The carbon footprint oversimplifies an otherwise complex geopolitical problem into just using metal straws and recyclable grocery bags. I’m not saying that you should not do those things, but be sure not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Landmark legislation, such as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, and corporate action, such as reducing supply chain waste, are the key to implementing change.
Penn Sustainability puts out excellent resources on how to minimize waste and reduce wasteful consumption, such as using single-stream recycling and considering ride-sharing alternatives. But it is important to recognize that if something is being fully and smartly used, even if that use is a convenience, this does not mean it is being wasted.
So, yes, you can leave the lights on in your apartment — if you are using them. You should not feel guilty for taking a flight to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity or to see friends and family during time away from campus. When you are emitting greenhouse gas emissions with the purpose to better your life or the lives of others, this should not be considered wasteful.
But, at the same time, do not forget the urgency of the climate crisis. Vote and be politically active. And yes, we should all reduce our carbon emissions, but make sure to identify which of our carbon emissions are wasteful and which of these are necessary for our everyday life.
SPENCER GIBBS is a College and Engineering sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics and systems engineering from Tallahassee, Fla. His email is email@example.com.