[OPINION] The Pope and single-use plastics

What is more urgent and effective: go big or start small?

This is one of the fundamental questions I encounter when addressing the climate crisis. Some would argue that given the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the next decade, the focus should be on pressuring authorities to implement large-scale solutions. Governments must enact policies for phasing out fossil fuels, especially coal, while corporations need to either stop funding environmentally-destructive projects or implement a just transition towards renewable energy development.

While these measures are obviously effective in mitigating and adapting to climate change, the value of the small-scale actions can never be discredited. These actions help create a precautionary culture wherein caring for the planet becomes a habit instead of an incentive, an initiative rather than a reaction. An educated, enabled, and empowered citizenry is also vital for exerting pressure on governments and corporations to instigate shifts in political and socioeconomic models to deal with the climate crisis. 

The importance of behavioral change to stop climate change is evident, whether you look at it through a scientific or religious lens.

The religious lens 

Pope Francis’s encyclical "Laudato Si’" is known as a landmark document of the Roman Catholic Church for directly addressing the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Yet at its core, it points to one undeniable fact: that human behavior is at the root of the ‘ecological crisis,’ and therefore at the heart of solving it. 

The Laudato Si’ calls for the creation of an “ecological citizenship,” where people are adequately motivated to respond to the call on caring for our common home. This would be brought about by environmental education with a renewed focus on ecological ethics. 

Given the challenges of today, education centered on scientific information, raising awareness, and avoiding environmental risks is no longer enough. It also needs a focus on critiquing and shattering the myths we consider as norms of the current modern life, from infinite growth to consumerism. It ultimately points for us to conduct ourselves in a way that is indicative of a lifestyle in harmony within ourselves and with others on Earth.  

Activities such as avoiding the use of single-use plastics, minimizing wasteful consumption of food, water, and electricity, using public transportation, and tree-planting and growing have positive impacts in our struggle for protecting our planet. Doing these actions do not just benefit our environment; they also provide personal co-benefits in aspects such as financial savings and better health. (READ: Philippine survey shows 'shocking' plastic waste)

While these acts are done on an individual level, that does not mean they should be misconstrued as modes exclusively for self-improvement. A dilemma with the complexity of the climate crisis requires a societal approach to properly address them. Given their potential positive impacts on the individual and communal levels, such activities are likely to spread and be adopted by different communities. 

As Pope Francis states, when done for the right reasons, each of these solutions can be considered as an “act of love” that reflects our societal responsibility for others and expresses our individual dignity.

The scientific lens

Several scientific reports have also proven the effectiveness of small-scale solutions for mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. A 2018 study by the Center for Behavior and the Environment showed that almost two-thirds of global GHG emissions are associated with both direct and indirect means of human consumption. 

It is noteworthy that almost every item we consume is made using resources such as fossil fuels. Therefore, if we start minimizing unnecessary consumption and actively look for alternatives, we are pressuring manufacturers to switch to more environment-friendly production and distribution systems, which in turn reduces consumption of pollutive fossil fuels and other resources. (READ: Single-use plastics, still the environment's number 1 enemy)

Furthermore, implementing small-scale behavioral solutions can reduce GHG emissions by as much as 37% from 2020 to 2050. These solutions involve modifications to activities involving food, agriculture and land management, transportation, and energy and materials. 

This is supported by a report by Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization dedicated to urgently reducing global GHG emissions. It claims that while the solutions to the climate crisis already exist, some of them receive relatively little attention compared to large-scale solutions such as developing more renewable energy resources, especially wind and solar.

This report identified the following as seven of the 10 most effective individual solutions: reduced food waste, health and education, plant-rich diets, refrigerant management, tropical forest restoration (including tree-planting), alternative refrigerants, and improved clean cookstoves. (READ: Sachet away: What's lacking in our plastic laws?)

The expression “great things from small beginnings” is almost a cliché nowadays, but it still applies when it comes to climate and environment action. Everyone needs to be involved in preventing further climate change and environmental degradation. And despite what some people might tell you, accessible and affordable solutions do exist. An act of love could truly go a long way. – Rappler.com

John Leo Algo is the Program Manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (KASALI). He has been a citizen journalist and feature writer since 2016, focusing on the climate and environment beat. He earned his MS Atmospheric Science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University in December 2018.