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Bridging the gap – the role of low carbon lifestyles

By Adam Corner on December 9, 2020

Climate Outreach has coordinated and lead-authored a chapter for the prestigious United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report (EGR) 2020, with the support of the KR Foundation.

Two women shop for fresh local produce at farmers market in California

Written with a team of international experts, including our partners at the Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations (CAST), the chapter – Bridging the gap: the role of equitable low carbon lifestyles –  is the first time the EGR has included a focus on lifestyle changes (or ‘consumption emissions’) as part of its analyses of the emissions ‘gap’ – that is, the difference between where the world is and where it should be on climate change.

The chapter is divided between a detailed look at where emissions come from, and how – from a public engagement perspective – they can be rapidly reduced. 

A key message is that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions globally can be linked to household activities, so lifestyle changes are a prerequisite for reducing global emissions. Nothing works without fossil fuels staying in the ground, but changing how we live is also crucial. This may seem like an obvious conclusion – but there are many who claim (in good faith and bad) that low carbon lifestyles are not a relevant piece of the climate puzzle. 

Our EGR chapter makes clear that lifestyle change and systematic change are two sides of the same coin – and we need to start better reflecting that in policy framings and approaches to engagement.

Is climate change ‘everyone’s problem’?

But this does not mean that all individuals have similar-sized carbon footprints, or an equal capacity to reduce them. In fact, the distribution of emissions in the form of individual or household carbon footprints is extremely uneven.

Whilst around half of all people alive today have a footprint that is already consistent with global targets to restrict temperature rises to 1.5C,  the richest 1% have footprints that are 30 times higher. This stark division exists internationally, between countries, and also at the national level: the top 1% of households (by income) within the EU have carbon footprints that are, on average, more than ten times the size of those in the lowest-earning 50%. 

What this means is that any societal changes – to jobs, technologies or lifestyles – must be fair and equitable. Whilst climate change is ’everyone’s problem’, some people can (and should) do a lot more about it than others.

Focus on the changes that matter

A better understanding of where emissions from people’s lifestyles come from also gives a clear steer as to the changes that count. The way we travel, the way we heat and power our homes, and the food we eat each account for about 20% of our individual carbon footprints. It is possible to avoid, shift or improve activities linked to people’s lifestyles to reduce emissions in both developed and developing countries – and to do so in an equitable way.

So, for people who fly regularly, reducing the number of flights will have a big impact. For those who consume a lot of red meat, cutting this down will bring significant carbon savings. Insulating our homes is critical for reducing energy use and energy bills. Governments have a major role in setting the conditions under which lifestyle change can occur, through shaping policy, regulations, and infrastructure investments. Policies and structural changes that make these major lifestyle changes easier, socially aspirational, and financially accessible are essential, and show why we need to get past the idea that behaviour change is somehow separate from systemic change.   

What doesn’t require much of anyone’s attention are the smaller, less impactful changes – so don’t guilt trip yourself or others for leaving the lights on by mistake, or for not passing a ‘purity test’ of low carbon living. Lifestyle changes can mean significant ‘personal behaviours’ but can (and should) also mean thinking about our roles as citizens (who have a vote and a voice), owners of financial assets (with savings or pensions) and members of communities (sports clubs or interest groups).

Learn from what works

Economic lockdowns are not a good model for societal action on climate change, but the pandemic has provided insights into how rapid lifestyle changes can happen. Governments must lead the way, and create conditions under which lifestyle changes are possible. Civil society actors can encourage positive social norms and a sense of collective agency for lifestyle change. And infrastructure changes to lock in behaviour changes are critical. 

There are many examples of good practice grounded in good social science (in the developing and developed world) that show the possibility of equitably accomplishing more sustainable lifestyles: they need replicating, amplifying and scaling up.

It’s well understood, for example, that social influence is important when shaping travel choices. Near-exponential growth in electric vehicle ownership in Norway has been driven by competitive pricing for purchasing or leasing the vehicles, but has also been consolidated by peer-to-peer communication, as well as so-called ‘neighbourhood effects’ (for example, visibility in residential areas) and perceptions of what is expected and desirable. 

Climate change is an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink problem. For a long time most policymakers (and many campaigners) have tended to focus on the technological and economic levers for decarbonisation. But our EGR chapter makes clear that not only are lifestyle changes a necessary part of decarbonisation pathways, they can also be a catalyst for accelerating change.

When social norms start to shift, low-carbon lifestyles become aspirational and expected, infrastructure shifts to ‘lock in’ positive changes and governments commit to a strategic approach to public engagement.

As the social mandate gets stronger, the emissions gap gets smaller, and our chances of keeping dangerous climate change in check increase.

This work is kindly supported by the KR Foundation.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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