From driving a car to buying a hamburger to shopping online for clothes, the environmental impact of our everyday actions can quickly add up when combined with the actions of others around the world.

While it’s true that the climate crisis is a structural problem that requires large-scale action at the government level, it’s also important for all of us to examine our lifestyles and make sustainable changes where possible. Otherwise, once the structural transitions take place — such as banning fossil fuels — we might be caught off guard. 

Taking action in our personal lives and encouraging our friends and families to be environmentally responsible can also help us build momentum for the larger transformations that need to take place worldwide. 

But how do we begin? The first step is understanding the impact of our actions. The humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide recently released an online carbon emissions calculator to help you better pinpoint where you can make changes in your life.  

The calculator factors in travel, diet, living arrangements, and more. Take a look for yourself to see how your carbon footprint stacks up compared to the global average. 

Global Citizen spoke with Colleen Kelly, the CEO of Concern Worldwide, to better understand the concept of a personal carbon footprint, how you can reduce your own, and some of the inequalities caused by the climate crisis. 

Global Citizen: Why is it important to think about our own personal carbon footprint? 

Colleen Kelly: While it’s important to stress that the climate crisis will not be resolved through individual action alone — we need system-wide change at the highest levels to do that — individual action can play a role. It will help influence that larger, more structural change and, over time, contribute to a lower global carbon footprint. The more we take steps to reduce our individual footprints, the more leadership will respond in turn.   

Also, as an international humanitarian organization, Concern thinks it's important to show how our actions are affecting those thousands of miles away. It may not seem like it, but the choices we make every day regarding our individual carbon footprint play a role, albeit small, in humanitarian emergencies around the world. From record-breaking droughts to swarms of locusts, we need to think about what we are doing and can do.   

What are some of the easiest ways people can reduce their environmental impact? 

There are tons of resources available online to start taking small, concrete steps to reduce your carbon impact, but Concern thinks one additional thing you can do is remembering, and reminding others, that these changes take time — and seeing their impact can take even longer. For example, Concern uses the "Graduation" approach in working with families to “graduate” from extreme poverty.

It’s a long-term program, run in phases, where participants take on new technical skills and business skills. Developing these skills takes time, financial support, and trial-and-error. But in making gradual, consistent progress, the majority of participating families stay above the poverty line and continue to grow their assets, while also weathering shocks beyond their control. It may not be the answer most of us want to hear, but if you make slow and steady changes, it will be a lot easier to sustain them over time.    

How does everyday energy use, through things like video conferencing and streaming, factor into our carbon footprint? 

For many of us lockdown meant rarely leaving the house, which seemed to reduce our individual carbon footprint. The startling truth is that many work-from-home activities are quite resource draining. According to the BBC, “the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet, and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates ... And these emissions are predicted to double by 2025.” Spending all day video conferencing isn’t helping. We designed the Carbon Footprint Calculator with exactly that in mind and considered how our routines have changed — from streaming to overnight shipping.  

Shopping for clothes and household objects is such a big part of many people’s lives, yet modern forms of consumerism depend on unsustainable amounts of natural resources, while also causing extraordinary pollution. How can people shop less without compromising their quality of life?  

It’s important to first define your quality of life — and your values. If you believe that all people are entitled to equal rights, regardless of circumstance (which I hope you do if you’re reading this!), that’s a good north star to keep in mind when you’re shopping. Buying from sustainable companies with sustainable employment practices often means that you also get higher quality goods because of it, which means you won’t need to replace items as often. Even if the seam in your coat tears or your vacuum cleaner breaks, you may not necessarily need to toss it.  

Either way, coming back to what truly defines your quality of life and values is helpful in a world where companies, marketers, and social media accounts are constantly urging you to buy.  

The climate crisis is ultimately a structural problem. How can we branch out of narratives of personal responsibility to focus on the bigger picture of ending fossil fuel use and curbing extractive industries? 

It can be difficult to conceptualize what fossil fuels mean in the abstract, which is why we find it effective to focus on those who are suffering the most from these practices. We know that we can’t completely erase the behaviors that have led to the climate crisis as it currently stands, but we can turn our attention to those who are being hit hardest.

Increasing public finance for climate change adaptation, in addition to the existing development assistance budgets, is one way we can focus on the bigger picture – or at least the effects of the bigger picture. This funding should be long-term, flexible, and grant-based; ideally it would also be going to local organizations based in fragile and conflict-affected countries, as these are the organizations reaching those furthest behind.  

How is the climate crisis connected to other forms of injustice? 

The deepening climate crisis and related environmental destruction contributes to land degradation and increasing hunger levels, especially through natural disasters. It’s also a significant factor in many conflicts as well as a major driver for migration and displacement.  

With any of these sorts of crises, the negative impacts are greater for those who are the most vulnerable — which is often those who face the largest degrees of inequality. Women in particular bear the brunt of this, whether it’s the day-to-day changes caused by climate or something more catastrophic like a natural disaster. They’re often less likely to be included in the decision-making process and have access to the resources they need to cope in either situation, and may even be more prone to gender-based violence. We saw this happen recently in the DRC during the evacuation of Goma in response to the Mount Nyiragongo eruption.   

But climate is also a force multiplier of inequity for people who are disabled; who have lower incomes or social status; who belong to a minority race, caste, or ethnicity; the elderly; and young children — to name just a few.  

More broadly, the climate crisis is its own injustice: Many of the countries who bear the least responsibility for the current climate crisis are those that are suffering its impacts the most. Chad, for example, is a country with very low carbon emissions — however, millions of lives and livelihoods are threatened by droughts and unpredictable rainfalls.  

What will it take to build a more sustainable and just world? 

We need a combination of policy change at the government level and behavioral change at the community level. At Concern, our understanding of poverty is that it's the result of inequality multiplied by risk. To sustainably break the cycle of poverty, we need to address both of these elements. Laws go a long way toward eradicating inequality, but we also need to make sure that all members of a community are advocating for their equality and the equality of others.

We also need to be clear that it’s not enough to focus on giving everyone the same resources to succeed. We have to focus on helping everyone achieve the same results. This helps us to offset risk, by reducing the vulnerabilities of marginalized people in the event of, say, a natural disaster. At the same time, we need to be advocating for political policies that support people and communities most likely to be facing these hazards — such as the communities who live along coastal Bangladesh, where flooding has increased — so that they are able to respond more quickly and effectively when an emergency strikes. 

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

Global Citizen Asks

Defend the Planet

I Want to Cut My Carbon Footprint — But Where Do I Start?

By Joe McCarthy