Graeme Maxton

Climate Change Economist and Author

What can I do to stop climate change?

June 2021

The question I am asked most is, “what can I do to slow the pace of climate change?”.

Most people want me to tell them they should eat less meat, buy an electric car and take the train instead of flying. More radical people want me to say they should live off grid, grow their own vegetables, sell their car, and recycle more.

Business leaders ask me the same question. They want me to tell them they can make a difference by reducing the amount of packaging they use, recycling water and using renewable energy. More radical businesses leaders might even be willing to make their products last longer, or make them easier to fix when they go wrong.

And all these people are terribly disappointed (some even get quite angry) when I tell them that these activities are a complete waste of time.

Doing these things will have no noticeable impact on the rate of climate change, as long as people act alone.

Let me explain why.

Let’s think BIG. Let’s not just consider the effect of Germany shutting down every lignite mine and only using renewable energy from now on. Let’s not even imagine what would happen if we could shut every oil company next week.

Let’s assume we could get hold of Harry Potter’s magic wand. Let’s assume that we could wave that wand and reduce all of EUROPE’S carbon emissions to zero tomorrow.

All Europe’s coal, gas and oil fired power stations would suddenly close. All the cars would disappear, including the electric ones, unless they were recharged with renewable energy. All the cement factories would shut, as well as all the steel firms and chemicals businesses.

All the airlines would close too, and most of the rail network. No one would be able to cut down any trees and all food would be grown without any damaging fertilisers. Food would also be grown locally – which means within walking distance. (Those who live in northern Scotland are not going to have a very nice diet.) There would be no phones, no TVs and no computer games unless they, and their networks, could be powered by solar, wind, wave or hydro power.

People would often have to live in the dark, and without heating or air conditioning.

I’m sure you get the picture.

Let’s assume too that every European could live like this for the next decade, even though lots of them would go mad.

What effect would this huge sacrifice have on the pace of climate change?

Not much, is the unfortunate answer. It would not change the pace of what’s happening to any useful degree.

Why?

Nine years and counting

In 2018, the UN said we had 12 years left to avoid catastrophic climate change. We have wasted three years. So now we have nine.

Europe’s share of global emissions is around 10%.

That means this enormous sacrifice would only delay the onset of uncontrollable climate change by 10% – which is less than a year. Instead of humanity kicking off an unstoppable chain reaction in 2030 it would happen sometime the following year.

You and I cannot change the pace of climate change by acting alone. Businesses cannot change it much either (unless it is an oil company and it shuts).

Most businesses are forced by the economic system to maximise short term profits. Any business leader who does anything that cuts profits gets fired and replaced by someone who does what shareholders want. As most businesses can’t be sustainable and also make more profit, they can’t change.

The only way societies can avoid a catastrophe is if EVERYONE – or almost everyone – changes how they live, so that societies cut emissions by 7% every year. They need to be 60% lower in 2030 and zero by 2040 (and not net zero).

Then, we have a 50:50 chance of survival.

Businesses have to be legally forced to do what’s needed. Leaving it to bosses to do what they think is right is not enough.

We all need to change, and globally. Unless the people of America, China, India, Russia, Japan, Australia and Europe change too, it’s not going to work.

So what should you do? Well, you should certainly eat less meat and take the train instead of the plane. You should set an example for others to follow. But unless you also work to change the system that is killing us, none of that will work. So you have to fight, and get all your friends to fight, for system change too.

That’s what you can do.

Pictures edited. Originals by Joseph Redfield Nino and Dmitry Abramov, Pixabay

Most people think that eating less meat, buying an EV and recycling more will slow the pace of climate change. They won’t. Only radical collective action will work.