Putting in perspective: what individual choices for emission reductions – Sinan Eden

Imagine two people.

Carl buys one sheet of A4 paper everyday, and throws it away without using.

Fred has an email address which he never uses.

I am being careful: Neither of them is doing anything with the resources they are consuming. So throughout this text we don’t have to worry about legitimate use or actual necessity. Carl could be writing stuff on that paper, Fred could actually use his email account. In that case, they could say they need these resources. But their impact would also increase: Carl would need a pencil, and Fred would use more energy. Let’s not go into any of this for now.

How much emissions is Carl causing with his choice?

Production of one A4 paper uses trees and energy. Each sheet has 3-6 grams of CO2e emissions. For simplicity, let’s say it’s 4 grams of CO2e.

Carl buys 1 sheet per day. Over a year, that makes 365 papers. Multiply this by 4 grams and you get 1.4 kg CO2e/year.

Carl is actively buying paper every day, and without even using it throws it to garbage. He doesn’t even recycle. Bad, bad Carl.

How much emissions is Fred causing with his choice?

Fred is not doing anything with his email account. He just has it. Maybe he has more than one account. Maybe one of them is a corporate account like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail or something. Maybe sometimes he logs in (and gives information to Google analytics and receives ads). But let’s not go into that. Fred has an email account, that’s all.

Fred doesn’t actively create any CO2 emissions. But his account receives Spam emails that are bounced back by the servers. Because the servers work well, these Spam emails produce nine times less emissions than an actual email. More precisely, each spam email emits 0.3 grams of CO2.

Now, 280 billion emails are sent every day. Half of this is spam. That’s 140 billion spam emails every day. There are a total of 3.8 billion email users worldwide. So on average, each email account receives 37 spam emails per day. That’s 13 500 spam emails per year.

Are you still with me? Fred has an email account that he never uses, and he receives 13 500 spam emails every year that his email serves bounces back and each of which emits 0.3 grams of CO2e. That’s 4 kg CO2e/year.

Fred isn’t even using his account. If he were to send one email per day, we would need to multiply everything by ten. Let’s not do that. Let’s keep it simple. Talking about simplicity: maybe Fred is employed to produce spam email and produces hundreds of them everyday. Or maybe Fred is not even a person, maybe he is a computer producing hundreds of automatic spam emails. Or else, maybe Fred is an IT employee who does maintenance for hundreds of email accounts that produce hundreds of spam emails every day. Let’s ignore all of that.

Good old Fred is producing 4 kg CO2e/year by doing nothing with his email account. That’s triple of Carl’s wastefulness!

What do Carl and Fred think about these numbers?

They don’t give a shit, really. They don’t think they are mere individual consumers. They know that we cannot solve the emissions issue with individual solutions. Forget reducing consumption, they know that activism is better than even dying (meaning, activism has more emission cuts than reaching zero emissions through personal choices).

Carl and Fred don’t blame each other while just 100 companies are responsible for 71 per cent of the emissions and arguably a higher percentage of global decision making.

What to do with these numbers?

Too many newspapers are talking about how that one miraculous personal choice could reduce emissions so very very much if everyone would do it. None is putting it in perspective in comparison with collective action. What’s worse, none is comparing it with the actually necessary emission cuts – because that would show how ridiculous those choices are.

In a way, neoliberalism creates an accountant in everyone’s head but never lets the accountant finish his calculations. The accountant is never allowed to conceive a society beyond isolated individuals. This is not only methodologically wrong, but it is also not leading us anywhere strategically.

Carl and Fred are fed up with capitalism scapegoating us for the crisis it created. Carl and Fred are part of social movements, and they are fighting to win. Their “individual choice” is stop acting like individuals and start acting like a social animal. Their “individual choice” is stop worrying about the environment, and take action as nature defending itself.

Be like Carl and Fred.

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