Climate Impact – Shadows and Beacons

As our understanding of the impact that we can have on the climate and health of our planet evolves it is necessary to challenge the way we think about things and whether our attention is focused in the right place. With this in mind I felt it was important to add a further Climate Concept to my library – Shadows and Beacons – if you have a few moments to spare I would like to share with you my thinking behind this concept and how it has changed my perspective on the way we measure our Climate Impact.

Trying to understand our Climate Impact and the effect that our daily habits and actions have on this is not simple. When I first started on my Climate Journey I quickly latched on to the idea of being able to calculate my carbon footprint and identify the things I might be able to change to reduce it. Four years on and I feel quite pleased with the progress I have made on my journey. I have significantly reduced my footprint but, how much effect has this had on my overall climate impact?

During one of my Climate Conversations workshops we were discussing carbon footprints and one of the participants cited a value for the UK carbon emissions which was quite different to the value I was used to seeing. When I dug into this further I realised the number they were using only included direct emissions resulting from activities within the UK and excluded emissions relating to imports. This made me stop and think; I realised that the value of a metric such as Carbon Footprint is limited by what is included in it.

This reminded me of a question that one of my mentors used to ask me:-

What is more important – doing things right or doing the right things?

Confused? I was until I thought about it more. It’s actually quite simple and we can use the carbon footprint of a car as a great example. When trying to understand how much impact our car use has on our carbon footprint we jump to the thing which is most obvious to us and the easiest to quantify – the emissions from the fuel. We then think about how to reduce that and some of the solutions we come up with are things like: drive the car less, car share, try to drive in a way which is more fuel economic, switch to a more fuel economic car etc.

All of these will reduce the emissions from burning the fuel but is this the right thing to be focusing on? What about all of the emissions that were generated to create the car – the embodied carbon? For cars this can be quite large and generally the bigger the car the bigger this number is. When considering the embodied carbon the way to reduce the impact is to keep the car for a long time and get as much use as we can from it. If we look again at some of the solutions we came up with to reduce the impact of our fuel emissions we can see that some of them are potentially in conflict with reducing the indirect impact from the embodied carbon.

Okay! – I hear you say – so that is all well and good but the indirect impact is hard for me to measure so how do I know how much impact I am having? This takes us right back to the original question. All of us are comfortable when we can measure something and see that we are making progress when we change our habits – we can get a good sense that we are doing it right. We are much less comfortable with fuzzy things which we cant easily (or precisely) measure. This can drag our attention away from the right things to be doing. So perhaps it helps if we use a different metaphor for the fuzzy things, such as embodied carbon, that make up our indirect impact. What about thinking about this as a shadow?

The Climate Shadow concept was recently introduced by Climate activist and writer Emma Pattee.

I visualize my climate shadow being made of three parts: my consumption, my choices, and my attention.

Emma Pattee

This is a powerful way of thinking beyond our carbon footprint to other aspects which are also a part of our climate impact equation and may be more significant. We have already touched on the indirect impact relating to embodied carbon which links to our consumption habits and also to our choices. What we buy, it’s quality, how and where it is made and, how often we replace/upgrade it all contribute. In this way our shadow reaches across the globe and can create ripples in the system as our choices influence the success of businesses and the choices of others.

The attention we pay to our actions and choices and, the attitude we broadcast either by creating a sense of apathy or amplifying a sense of urgency can have a negative or positive impact. Perhaps it is my pedantic nature but this is where I feel that the shadow metaphor breaks down a little. It works if we think about negative actions/attitudes which clearly we want to reduce but to me the positive aspects of supporting sustainable businesses, of spreading hope and amplifying urgency requires a different metaphor – a Climate Beacon which can light a path for others to follow.

Addressing our Climate Impact is very much about focusing on doing the right things  – these can come from paying attention to aspects of our direct carbon footprint in the wider context of the shadow our actions and choices cast and the way our attention serves to amplify positive change within the system. So far I think I have done a reasonable job of reducing my direct carbon footprint but my shadow is larger than I realised and reducing this will need more of my attention as I continue on my Climate Journey. Hopefully by sharing the new Climate Concept – Shadows and Beacons – with you will help to keep my beacon burning brightly and light a path for you on your journey too.

If you would like to receive regular updates from Climate Concepts and your own free copy of the Climate Concepts Infographics which includes the latest – Shadows and Beacons – concept then you can sign up here.

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