Meat, air con, flying and SUVs are driving emissions up, the latest science shows – and cleaner lifestyle choices can make a difference
Lifestyle changes globally could cut emissions twice the size of Brazil’s by 2030, compared to technological solutions alone, according to a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report.
Eating meat, air conditioning, flying and driving SUVs are among high carbon lifestyle choices on the rise, linked to disposable incomes. Those trends make consumer behaviour relevant to tackling climate change – particularly among the rich, who have the largest carbon footprints.
The draft IPCC report found that “individual behavioral change in isolation cannot reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions significantly” but “individuals can contribute to overcoming barriers and enable climate change mitigation”.
“If 10-30% of the population were to demonstrate commitment to low-carbon technologies, behaviors, and lifestyles, new social norms would be established,” the draft report says.
For decades, climate campaigners have hotly debated the relative importance of what individuals buy in creating change. Some argue it lets governments and big business off the hook, while others argue it is empowering and pressures governments and companies to act.
For the first time, the IPCC is to include a major section on demand-side measures in the section of assessment report 6 on how to stop global heating, due out in March 2022. A first draft of the summary for policymakers and opening chapter has been leaked by Extinction Rebellion scientists.
Summarising published scientific research, it finds that: “Lifestyle options like heating and cooling set-point adjustments, reduced appliance use, shifts to human-centred mobility and public transit, reduced air travel and improved recycling can deliver an additional 2 GtCo2eq savings in 2030 and 3 GtCo2eq savings 2050 beyond the savings achieved in conventional technology-centric mitigation scenarios.”
Total global greenhouse gas emissions were 59GtCo2 in 2018 and 2Gt is roughly twice the annual emissions of Brazil. Of this 59Gt, 38Gt was from fossil fuel and industry.
Karen Moberg is a researcher at the Western Norway Research Institute who studies the climate impact of household consumption in European countries. She told Climate Home News: “I’ve heard arguments like ‘why do you focus on individuals when it’s the fossil fuel companies that are the real bastards’ but it’s two sides of the same coin really. Saying that individual consumption matters does not mean that we should forget about how we produce our energy. We have to do both.”
The UK prime minister’s climate spokesperson Allegra Stratton recently launched a “one step greener” campaign by encouraging people to not rinse their dishes before they put them in dishwasher. This was heavily criticised as trivialising the issue.
Moberg said that not rinsing dishes was a “low-impact action”. While these small changes “do matter”, she said, “it’s really about how we transport ourselves and the volumes of us doing so and what we eat and how it’s produced and how far it’s travelled and what the total energy use is in our dwellings”.
She added: “In addition to policies scaling up the energy system transition, we need government policies that aim at reducing individual consumption in a fair and equitable way.”
Aviation grew 28.5% between 2010 and 2020, SUV use 17% and meat consumption 12%, the draft report shows. Energy demand for household cooling grew 40% from 2010 to 2018.
The report says “a shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions” and “plant-based diets can reduce GHG emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emissions intensive Western diet”.
While individuals can reduce their own meat consumption, the report finds that government action like a tax on red meat or an advertising campaign can help significantly. But these policies can be unpopular. In April, US Republicans falsely claimed President Joe Biden was planning to reduce the nation’s red meat eating as part of his climate plan.
The IPCC report is under review by government officials and scientists, and subject to change before its planned publication in February 2022. The IPCC does not comment on the contents of leaked drafts.
In a statement, Scientist Rebellion said they had leaked the document “because [we] expect the final version will be watered down”.
The final text of the summary for policymakers will be negotiated line by line between government representatives. Some, notably Saudi Arabia, have a record of seeking to weaken the language – but lead scientists are there to defend the evidence.
This article was amended on September 1, 2021, to correct the month in which the report is scheduled to be released and to clarify that the report is a draft.