Traveling to the climate march: Worth the carbon footprint?

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Looks like the simmering “climate swerve” may come to a boil on September 21 in New York City for what’s billed as the People’s Climate March.

Bill McKibben called for it in the Rolling Stone magazine. Tens of thousands are slated to respond to his call, ostensibly to channel Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ghost and make world leaders “do it” - push for strong climate policies, now.

Except that it wouldn’t be the climate movement if it weren’t beset with self-doubt and second-guessing. Going to New York, you see, produces carbon dioxide emissions, the very cause of the problem. So how then can climate activists justify riding, driving or – heaven forbid – flying in the name of climate action?

We do because traveling to Manhattan, and expanding our carbon footprint in the process, may be better for the planet in the long-run than if we stayed home.

Real climate policy is what we need

Every cross-country roundtrip flight causes about a ton of carbon dioxide, per passenger. Driving emits carbon, if not quite as much. Trains do, too. Even if you bike or walk, you will need extra calories, which also come with additional carbon emissions.

A plethora of online calculators can help you decide how to minimize your own footprint. You could get positively crazy making these calculations, and some possibly have.

If you spend so much time online researching your carbon footprint that your power consumption shoots up, you may be on the wrong track.

We should all be decreasing our carbon footprint. The emphasis is on “all.” Real climate action, then, must go far beyond individual action by the committed core.

The People’s Climate March will take place on the eve of the United Nations’ Climate Summit, convened by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 23, and for good reason. It’s policy that needs to change.

Coal cannot be banned, but it can be priced

The headwinds are strong, to say the least.

King Edward I banned the burning of coal in 1306, replete with the death penalty for repeat offenders. It didn’t take long for the ban to be lifted, and the coal-fueled industrial revolution has brought untold riches to many.

The coal question, in many ways, goes to the heart of the matter. Banning coal is out. It is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.

What we need is to incorporate the full societal cost of burning that coal into everyone’s private decisions.

At the moment, each ton of coal and each barrel of oil used causes more in external damage to human health and the environment than it adds in value to the economy. That doesn’t mean we should not burn any coal or any oil, but it does mean putting a price on carbon, ideally directly via carbon markets or taxes.

It means regulation. It means standards. It means tax reform. It means taking significant policy steps to restructure misguided market forces so they lead us off of the current high-carbon, low-efficiency path.

Composting counts, but it’s not enough

Going green is fine. I don’t drive, don’t eat meat, and do all sorts of other things that minimize my own carbon footprint. The climate movement is home to quite a few who go the full-on vegan, composting, skip-coffee-because-it’s-bad-for-the-climate route.

But going green is only good if it actually gets somewhere.

If you compel your in-laws to compost more and drive less - go forth and proselytize. But if this makes them ignore efforts to achieve critical policy changes, your campaign for a voluntary green lifestyle should probably stop.

Many actions needed for a climate revolution are akin to a bootstrapping problem. Building a wind turbine takes steel, which in turn takes energy. The green energy revolution then may well mean an increase in current, largely fossil-fueled energy use for the sake of decreased carbon emissions later.

The Climate March falls into the same category. Going to New York implies emissions, as do most other things we hold near and dear in our daily lives.

Participating in the march won’t change that fact overnight. But calling for real, measured climate action just might. Helping to build the momentum toward policy change is precisely what’s needed.

If you can do it while also decreasing your own footprint, so much the better. If not, choose policy change.

Bike if you can, fly if you must. By all means, go to New York on September 21.

Gernot Wagner

Gernot Wagner

Focuses on the economics of clean air.

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Comments

Sadly but true... :(

Thanks for sharing this thought provoking article,the world has to wake up.

We need a march for the molten salt reactor to be deployed globally because they are meltdown proof, require (far) less storage and does not need natural gas backup, can have wastes reprocessing at site such that what little wastes leftover would be stored on site for only a max of 300 years.
More power than wind, solar AND all the fossil fuels ever!

Confusion exist in this planet,the remedy to climate fiasco is for entire world to minimize use of dirty energy.