Between sustainable swaps and eco-shaming, how the everyday population gets blamed for climate change when we should be looking at corporations

When it comes to determining the cause of climate change, it seems the fingers are always pointed at the many. We're blamed for not being zero waste, not being vegan, or not dressing sustainably enough, but the problem doesn’t necessarily lie with the everyday consumer. While it’s still important to make conscious decisions for the planet, we have to go deeper.

Let’s talk about corporations’ impact on the environmentfossil fuelsPhoto by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

Since the Industrial Revolution, greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have already caused the planet to warm by about one degree Celsius.

It’s not just vehicles that are contributing to fossil fuel use, but the increased use of plastics. From 2006 to 2016, global plastic output rose from 245 million to 348 million tonnes, and the plastics industry relies heavily on fossil fuels.

We’ve seen the most demand for thermoplastics, which are used for water bottles, plastic wrap and bags. As the economy grows, we’re also seeing more plastic used in construction, infrastructural development, specialty athletic wear, electrical and electronic industries, and transport. 99 percent of plastics are produced from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and if trends continue, plastics will account for 20 percent of total oil consumption by 2050.

These coal and oil producing companies, like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Gazprom, and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988, and 25 corporations and state-owned entities were responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions in that same period.

In comparison, only 8.5 percent of carbon reductions would come from personal behaviour changes—diet or turning off our lights. Personal change isn’t enough when the scale of the problem is larger than our households.

Change needed from corporations

The fossil fuel industry is largely responsible for driving the world’s climate crisis, and they know it.

Larry Fink, founder and chief executive of Wall Street giant BlackRock, wrote in a 2020 letter to industry CEOs: “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”

Instead of committing to numbers that could actually help curb climate change, corporations make vague and broad promises to “lower emissions by 2040.” This isn’t fast enough, and it definitely isn’t ambitious enough considering the damage that has been done. These promises are clever marketing tactics, because they know consumers care about the planet, and corporations want to attract the climate-conscious. If we’re crunching numbers, oil companies collectively spent only one percent of their annual budgets on renewable energy in 2018.

When it’s expected that our planet will warm by another 0.5 degrees Celsius in the next 10 to 30 years, we can see that we’re beyond the point of just slashing greenhouse gas emissions. We need to remove the existing emissions from the atmosphere, and limit warming at or below that 1.5 Celsius mark to help mitigate some of the worst effects of global climate change.

We need government actionWhite HousePhoto by Louis Velazquez on Unsplash

Research found that when the government sets targets and creates legislation on climate change action, businesses make smarter decisions.

Federal policies can put a price on carbon to help create a decarbonized economy, they can incentivize or force companies to reduce emissions, and support much-needed clean energy technologies. But unfortunately, if you look at the same 100 companies who are responsible for 71 percent of emissions, most of them are state-owned.

The corporations are almost all political entities, which means those who are making decisions for climate laws, are also the ones making decisions for corporate interest. Those 100 companies need to be reframed as tackling 40 governments—and billions of citizens’ decisions.

It’s a tough fight, and even though it’s not the populations’ fault that emissions are so high, it does take the volume of the masses to apply pressures to governments and hold them accountable to make changes at a larger scale.

Reclaiming our power

Shifting the climate blame from corporations to the public is absolutely an intentional strategy, and it’s effective. It binds populations to a truth that we’ve held for so long: that this is our fault. That we’re to blame. But we’re not. Climate change is a huge threat and requires huge-scale reforms. The good news? The population is also huge, and it’s absolutely in our power to create change.

Corporations know that the majority of the population is aware of climate change, they understand their new consumer is a climate-conscious generation, and they’ve felt the pressure on their bottom lines. We’re not alone; there are many policymakers and investor networks, like Climate Action 100+, that are putting pressure on corporations that emit the most greenhouse gases to take action. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

If we’re successful, and if 285 companies are encouraged to reach the targets approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative, they will mitigate 265 million tons of CO2— the equivalent to closing 68 coal-fired power plants. If they eliminate all of their greenhouse gas emissions, they will mitigate 752 million tons of CO2. The stakes are high, so the pressure needs to come from all fronts—nonprofits, activists, socially-responsible shareholders, and policymakers.

To change our systems, we must do it as citizens and not as consumers. Organize actions that encourage as many folks as possible to join. Make sure your rallies are accessible and inclusive. Have a solid plan, be educated on topics, be entertaining, be peaceful, be loud, be respectful and be brave.

This isn’t our fault, but it’s our collective fight. I know we’re tired, but let’s keep demanding corporations to do better. For us, for our future, for our planet. The problem may lie with the corporations, but it can end with us.