3 Things we get wrong with carbon footprints and 1 simple fix.
As climate change becomes an ever-present issue, many people are asking: What can individuals do to realistically make a difference? The average US carbon footprint is about 4x the global average! But with industrial pollution does it really matter? Today, we are going to explain what a carbon footprint is and why behavior change is the key to tackling climate change.
What’s my carbon footprint?
Have you heard about a carbon footprint? Your carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by your actions and lifestyle, both of which are heavily influenced by how one’s community and political economy are designed. It varies based on your travel habits (daily commutes and occasional vacations), energy usage, your diet, and your consumption of single-use versus reusable products.
According to Union of Concerned Scientists, the average carbon footprint for an individual in the USA is almost 17 metric tons. If we compare this to the global average of 4 tons, we can easily see that this is a systemic problem too.
However, reducing your carbon footprint can be challenging. Here are three ways we get it wrong and one simple fix!
3 Ways We Get it Wrong
- Year-long carbon footprint calculators
These are not intrinsically inadequate tools, but when was the last time you sat down to actually calculate your footprint? They take a good chunk of time to complete and rely on your long-term memory unless you are already tracking details closely (which WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT?!). And after you finish, where do you start? There are too many options which require time intensive decision-making to figure out where to start
- Difficult to budge carbon categories
Often people gravitate towards the largest buckets of pollution. Flying has a colossal carbon pollution footprint but is an occasional decision for most of us and feels like a big sacrifice to skip. Another huge but problematic category? Kids! Making changes here takes a ton of mental energy, and for some, it comes with an immense sense of sacrifice. Having kids is a huge life decision, and now one’s carbon footprint can come into play. It puts a lot of pressure on occassional and deeply personal decisions. All which make it more difficult to get started and actually shrink your footprint.
- Ignoring individual pollution because of corporate pollution
Yes, we need to change the way we allow environmental pollution to be externalized and create the right rules and incentives to achieve carbon neutrality before 2050. However, these corporations are intertwined with us as consumers and civically engaged people. These bigger systems change when we make smaller system changes in our own lives.
The Simple Fix
The use of behavioral science can help us reframe how we approach looking at our own carbon footprint.
To make a dent in your annual or life-long carbon footprint, it needs to be broken down into smaller increments to develop simple habits or new behaviors. Smaller and repeatable actions are easier to start and stick with over time. It’s one of the reasons why behavioral scientist BJ Fogg started Tiny Habits.
The beauty of habits is that they are as close to automated efficiency upgrades as you can make, without the high sticker price of a new appliance or vehicle. But let’s first explain why that is so valuable.
Slow and Fast Thinking
Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral economist, outlines that we have “fast and slow thinking”. He outlines that we have two systems of thinking. Our fast thinking system includes unconscious and automatic behaviors, like driving a car. Our slow thinking system is a controlled mental process that requires a lot of effort.
We do about 2% of our thinking in our slow system. And this is where most planet-friendly decision making happens. It stresses our slow system and is both difficult to start big behaviors and stick with them over time.
So, how can we apply behavioral science to planet-friendly living and climate change? We need to move planet-friendly living from a slow system thinking to our fast system thinking, make it feel routine. It starts by simplifying your carbon footprint. Breaking it down to more easily match small, repeatable steps. Let’s take a deeper dive into what this means.
How to Simplify Shrinking Your Carbon Footprint
Current carbon footprint tools have us looking at your entire carbon footprint, which doesn’t make for a great start with behavior change. Here’s how we are working to fix that at Tiny Planet:
1. Small, repeatable steps are key. When we first analyzed all carbon-intensive activities we worked to categorize them between occasional decisions and regular activities. We came up with 4 categories of daily activities which provide an initial foundation for our new web-based app, My Carbon Counter. (Psst: this new tool will be available soon — get on the waitlist here!)
2. We actually need to enjoy it too. It’s not enough to have a goal, whether it’s health related or environmentally related. We need to enjoy the behaviors that will lead to achieving those goals otherwise we won’t be able to maintain the goals. In order to find enjoyable behavior shifts it’s better to approach trying new planet-friendly behaviors as if you’re an experimenter. Be open to trying out different shifts and pay attention to what you like or don’t like about them. (This is why we’ve identified bonus benefits for each small planet-friendly step in our web-based app — to help you see the different ways a new habit could be enjoyed by a person.)
Why Individual Behavior Change DOES Matter
So why does a singular person’s change of behavior matter? While lowering your carbon footprint won’t happen overnight, when you use behavioral science to build habits, small changes can have a butterfly effect.
First, when you use behavioral science you are more likely to start and stick with habits. Even better, feeling early wins can make you more likely to make even more planet-friendly shifts. So making significant and long term changes is more likely.
Additionally, your planet-friendly habits can release a social domino effect. When you make a positive planet-friendly new habit, you can influence others to do the same, whether they are family, friends, or even coworkers. Not just in terms of making planet-friendly living seem more normalized but also when you are seen enjoying new lifestyle shifts.
Small, repeatable shifts can also send economic and political signals to industry and policy leaders that people are eager for change.
For all of these reasons, behavior change is the most powerful tool we have right now to make progress with climate change. President Biden has an amazing team working tirelessly on making bold progress to meeting 2030 climate goals. But bi-partisan support is needed, especially in the senate, which will require more evidence from individuals that climate change is a priority.
A New Platform To Help Shrink Your Carbon Footprint
For over 3 years, the founder of Tiny Planet has worked to apply behavioral science to climate change. After testing many approaches, it was clear a web-based app was needed as a collection point for individuals to more easily find shifts they can enjoy and see their positive impact grow over time.
It’s a fresh approach that doesn’t force people to engage in slow thinking first, to evaluate their entire carbon footprint or trash bin to see where to start. My Carbon Counter will be released this Earth Day to make it easier to build planet-friendly habits you enjoy and can stick with over time.
A waitlist has opened up to offer early bird discounts and a behind the scenes sneak peek in new features we’re working on — click here to get yourself added to the list!