Counteracting the effects of the climate crisis will require adjustments to our individual and collective behaviors around sufficiency, as well as technological advancements around carbon emissions’ reduction. Corporations and governments tend to prefer the technology levers—because changing behavior is hard, and people don’t like change—but the reality is that we need both.
While the development of new technology does make me hopeful, some companies are, unfortunately, content to wait for some new tech to undo the decades of damage we’ve done. Organizations need to courageously lead conversations around undertaking behavior change without waiting for the next catastrophe as a trigger—and adopt virtuous technologies along the way.
Companies can be drivers of both technological and behavioral changes, but each comes with challenges.
Imagine trying to have a conversation five years ago about the sustainability benefits of having employees work from home. It would have been a massive conversation. But now there is context for corporations to explore these behavioral changes. We shouldn’t wait for another disruption before replicating that same introspection around other aspects of corporate behavior.
Carbon implications need to become a leading factor in any business decisions and discussions. The framework currently exists for companies to make those behavioral changes around business travel, power settings on office equipment, policies for email attachments (use cloud links instead) and defaulting to reply all (don’t, unless you must). While these levers might sound ridiculously low compared to the challenge, I strongly believe that rippling effects will come as we consider changing our behaviors. It will push everyone to reconsider their own lifestyle and behaviors as a consumer and as an individual investor. And we desperately need to.
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For technology-driven change, that will vary significantly sector by sector. But universally, there are opportunities to both implement established technologies as well as invest in new ones. Trusting that innovation will solve everything is unlikely to pay off. But as investments are made, carbon usage will decrease, and costs will continue to go down—facilitating each company’s sustainability journey. We have seen that decrease for renewable electricity sources. We are seeing the same for electric mobility, for instance.
The specifics of behavior and technology will vary from organization to organization. But every company needs to have the conversation around fundamental shifts to how they consider how their activity impacts their carbon emissions. Behavior-driven change needs to start with a carbon-first mindset, that treats it as a leading indicator—not a lagging one—with new tools like carbon budget dictating activity and a new way to assess performance.
Governments will be at the forefront of responding to increases in extreme weather and will need to help citizens most impacted by climate change—so they also need to continue to be at the forefront of behavioral change and technological investment.
Regulation is a key lever to change behaviors in the government’s toolbox, which it can use to help limit emissions or phase out carbon-heavy technologies (like internal-combustion engines), putting a framework in place to shift overall behavior. Politically, most state-level and local governments have an incentive to proactively implement climate-conscious regulations anyway as the younger generations—who are demanding action on climate change—are becoming the most powerful voting bloc.
Effective government action isn’t without its challenges, of course, as the fairness of each regulation and of every investment needs to be considered. Regulations can place undue burdens on the most vulnerable, damaging public opinion or wasting taxpayer money. Those impacts also need to be prioritized when making decisions.
When it comes to action of each individual, the planet doesn’t differentiate between carbon released by individuals or by corporations. Every atom of carbon not released into the atmosphere is good news, so individual shifts in behavior and adoption of technology—especially collectively—can make a difference. Taking advantage of grants or subsidies, buying electric vehicles, installing solar panels at your home, and defaulting to energy-efficient appliances can all make an impact.
In addition to limiting a personal carbon footprint by flying less, eating less meat, and adopting other day-to-day behaviors, individuals can have a big impact by influencing businesses and governments. Whether with the wallet, within their place of work, or in the voting booth, an individual can influence broader behavioral shifts in their communities.
Technological advancements are going to be essential in our Net Zero journey, but so will adjusting our behaviors.
Unfortunately, conversations around behavioral changes tend to be avoided altogether—for aforementioned reasons—or are too focused on radical changes that are unlikely to scale or have significant barriers to adoption. We are stuck in a false dichotomy of either radical change or doing nothing.
But there is a third path and a middle ground—for individuals to feel at ease making incremental changes, without the guilt of feeling they’re not doing enough. If everyone starts making adjustments to their behavior, that in and of itself would create meaningful impact.
We need to start the conversations around the meaningful behavioral changes that will make a huge difference, while also adopting appropriate technologies, and influencing others—including businesses and governments—to ensure we avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
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