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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Sustainability March 25, 2020

Look Up from Your Carbon Footprint

Illustration of people marching toward a building with stone columns holding signs.
Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Students at Smith are thinking about their carbon footprints—the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with each person’s individual lifestyle and consumption—but are also learning to look beyond them. 

In the introductory course for our environmental science and policy major, we ask students to calculate their carbon footprints. (If you haven’t calculated your own, I recommend it. Follow the link in the box at right.) Comparing data for the class, students quickly learn three things: 

First, everyone’s carbon footprint is too large. The average person’s carbon footprint in the U.S. is 22 metric tons of carbon dioxide– equivalent per year. Compare this to the global average of roughly 4 tons per person; in Tanzania it’s only 0.2 tons per person. If we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, everyone’s carbon footprint needs to move toward zero as quickly as possible. 

Second, there are sensible actions available to reduce your footprint. Research suggests that flying less, eating less red meat, living car-free or driving a very efficient/electric car, reducing food waste and buying clean electricity are some of the big-impact changes we can make. 

Third (and most critical), it is basically impossible to get your own carbon footprint to zero. Without good alternatives, it’s hard to avoid driving or flying, plus there’s still carbon pollution from the things you buy. 

These limits make us ask: Why do we focus so much on reducing our personal carbon footprint? Our culture often asks us to respond to social problems by changing how we act as consumers. Historian Jenny Price calls this the “I Problem.” This tendency to focus on the individual is unfortunate; we stare at our footprints instead of looking around to see how institutional and political systems shape and constrain both where we are and where we can go. 

Climate change, like structural racism, isn’t a problem that can be solved by individual actions alone. Big problems like these are why government (and other forms of collective action) exist: to fund research, help create markets, correct incentives and reduce inequities. 

We don’t have to imagine what these system shifts can look like. Government policy helped transform solar panels from high-tech gear for satellites into one of the cheapest sources of new electricity generation. Thanks to climate-focused legislatures and governors, 12 U.S. states (along with Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 200 cities and counties) have already adopted 100 percent clean-electricity targets. New Zealand recently passed legislation that sets the country on a path to zero net carbon emissions by 2050. 

What's your carbon footprint?

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t work to reduce our own carbon footprints. Individual actions are important in helping us deal with climate grief. They signal to others that we think climate action is important and that it can improve our lives. Getting out of cars to walk, bike and ride public transit can leave us healthier and more connected to our communities. Low-carbon diets are also usually healthier. Energy retrofits help save money. Making these changes—when we are able to make them—can help us envision and build social and political systems that are more sustainable, communal and just. 

But the next time you feel the urge to take action (and I hope that you do!), lift your vision from your carbon “feet” and look around to ask how you can use your energy and resources to change systems. Elect politicians (from city councilors to presidents) who will act on climate; help your employer, church or school grapple with these issues; and support the frontline communities that are already dealing with the negative effects of the climate crisis. 

Alex BarronAlex Barron is assistant professor of environmental science and policy. 

This story appears in the Spring 2020 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.