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Environment: treading lightly on the Earth
Environment: treading lightly on the Earth

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5.1 The role of individuals and households

You’ve been considering how to reduce your carbon footprint to help tackle climate change and, to some extent, other environmental changes. To that extent, ‘I’ as an individual consumer has a role to play.

But unless you live alone, you share your household with other people, a group that could be called ‘we’. Within a household, there may be different views and priorities about what, if anything, should be done about reducing carbon footprints. Saving energy and other resources can involve some inconvenience or loss of comfort and often involves advance planning or careful thought. It may involve spending money on carbon-saving products or cutting down on some pleasurable activities. There may be social or cultural issues, or deep-rooted beliefs and habits, which differ. Not everyone in the household may agree that the actions are necessary or desirable, or worth even minor inconveniences. Others may be driven by their environmental or other values to live as sustainably as possible (see Box 3 for an example).

Box 3 My household

Here’s an example of how members of a household can have differing views and priorities when thinking about their carbon footprint:

Using the carbon calculator to explore how to reduce my carbon footprint reminded me that some of these issues occur in my own household. Regarding energy use, my partner and her daughter like the house kept nice and warm in winter and often turn up the thermostat or thermostatic radiator valves.

On transport, my partner and I run a small car. I try to car-share or cycle to work and usually take a train or coach for longer journeys. But my partner’s daughter likes driving her own, fairly powerful, car and rarely uses public transport. And while my partner and I have avoided flying in the past year (having flown three times for leisure in the previous year), my partner’s daughter has already enjoyed two holiday flights and is looking forward to a trip to Australia.

I would happily become a vegetarian, but my partner likes to eat meat at least once or twice a week.

Regarding consumption, while I prefer buying a few long-lasting goods, my partner’s daughter, and to some extent my partner too, like shopping for new things.

So while my own carbon footprint may be fairly light and could be lighter, the total household footprint is heavier than it could be. To lighten our footprint involves trade-offs and choices, and requires give and take among the household members.

You may be able to think of similar issues in your household. Does this mean that each member of the household has to be responsible for their own carbon footprint? Or are there shared activities about which compromises have to be made in order to reduce the household’s total footprint?

Of course, you may not be just part of a shared household: you are also a member of society. Even if you agree within your household about what to do, many others in society aren’t concerned about reducing carbon footprints. Is there any point in trying to reduce your footprint when others aren’t interested or willing to change? In economics this is an aspect of the ‘free rider’ problem in which others benefit from a public good – a reduced risk of dangerous climate change – without paying for it.

One view, argued by businessman and green politician Chris Goodall in How to Live a Low-carbon Life (2007), is that pioneering individuals should take responsibility for reducing their carbon footprints in an attempt to galvanise governments, businesses and other members of society into action. He admits that even a million individuals cannot tackle climate change alone, but if governments, businesses and others are unwilling to make the necessary changes, they have to be persuaded by being shown examples of low-carbon living (such as the Oxford couple in Section 4.4.1 ). His model is that of the abolition of slavery and votes for women, in which radical change was brought about by the actions of small groups of highly committed people.