We are all quite used to the concept of carbon footprint, a tool that helps us calculate how much we are personally contributing to climate change. Our footprint might take into account electricity usage, how many miles we drive, our water usage and eating habits, how much we fly, and how much garbage we accumulate. But all these calculations could not be enough.


Beyond the carbon footprint

The problem is that our carbon footprints don’t give an accurate picture of our true individual impact on the climate crisis. Emma Pattee, climate journalist and author of this concept, gives a very clear example:

There are two people, one flies weekly for work, the other lives in a studio apartment and walks to the office every day. On the surface, it’s clear who has the bigger carbon footprint. But if the weekly flier is a climate scientist who travels around the world teaching about the dangers of climate change and the second person works for a marketing agency making ads for an oil company, who is contributing more to the climate emergency really?

By paying attention just to our carbon footprints, we risk to spend all our energy on low-impact individual actions that are easy to quantify, like recycling or turning off lights, instead of putting that energy toward more meaningful work, like lobbying local politicians.

If we have any chance at slowing climate change, we desperately need a more comprehensive metric. We need something that truly encompasses the total impact each of us has on the climate crisis. So what do we need?

Here’s the climate shadow

The climate shadow is a concept created to help us visualize how the sum of our life’s choices influence the climate emergency. It can be seen as a dark shape stretching out behind us, everywhere we go, and records everything we do, or don’t do, in terms of our impact on the planet.

In this more comprehensive metric there is space for consumption habits, of course, like eating fast food, buying clothes every week from the fast fashion industry, or spending money that goes toward a company that is sustainable long-term – this is all carbon footprint. But there is also room for two other aspects, choices and attention. Choices include how we donate and invest our money, the number of children and pets we choose to have, what kind of company we work for and the kind of work we do. While attention, perhaps the most important, is how many hours  we devote to climate action compared to other things we spend my time on.  

The power of climate shadow is that, unlike a carbon footprint, it includes actions that defy easy calculation. It also includes contagious behaviors, like installing solar panels, giving up flying, supporting reforestation projects, or talking about climate change in everyday conversation.

Reforestation as a climate choice

One way in which we can all choose to contribute, individually or collectively, to climate action is by supporting reforestation campaigns and projects. Planting trees is one of the biggest and cheapest ways of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to tackle the climate crisis. As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating – 400 tons of carbon can be locked into just 1 hectare.

A study published in the journal Science in 2019 found Earth’s ecosystems could support another 900 million hectares of forests, 25% more forested area than we have now. And by planting about 500 billion trees we could reduce atmospheric carbon by about 25%. That’s enough to negate about 20 years of human-produced carbon emissions at the current rate. For all of these reasons, climate scientists have hailed the benefits of planting trees and protecting the trees that we already have.

Take a stand

It is certainly an important step to know and pay attention to our carbon footprint, but the current climate emergency requires each of us to go beyond changing our habits. We must actively engage with our life choices and collective actions, spreading awareness about the climate crisis, drowning out those companies or organisations that work against the planet while deciding to support those that act for it.

If we are to try to stop the worst of the climate crisis from happening, we must change not just our habits, but our society and how it works. And in this, thinking about our climate shadow can help us open our eyes and take a stand.

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