Lifestyle change and system change are two sides of the same coin

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Climate change is everyone’s problem, but who should do something about it? Individuals changing their lifestyles, or governments leading the way?

Too often, lifestyle change is seen as somehow separate from system change, and not as important. But we need both, and they are deeply connected.

Lifestyle change and system change are two sides of the same coin.


Every year, the UN Environment Programme publishes the globally significant Emissions Gap report, which analyses the difference between anticipated carbon emissions and levels consistent with the Paris Agreement.

For the first time, the December 2020 Emissions Gap report includes a focus on the key role of lifestyle change in bridging that gap, contained in a chapter lead-authored by Climate Outreach, the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) and the University of Oxford, and funded by the KR Foundation.

A key message is that household activities are linked to around two-thirds of all emissions – so while nothing works without fossil fuels staying in the ground, changing how we live is also crucial.

 

bicycle riders in Mexico
Muevete en Bici is a government-backed initiative that removes vehicles from major roads on Sundays in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo credit: Meanderingemu / Alamy

Everyone can do something – but some people can and should do a lot more than others. Climate action needs to be fair.

The total emissions of the world’s wealthiest 1% (80 million people) account for more than double those of the poorest 50% (3.5 billion people). To tackle climate change, this 1% will need to cut their carbon footprints by 97%.

This isn’t just about the uber-elite who own yachts and travel by private plane. Many of us are likely to be in the world’s richest 10% (700 million people), who emit nearly half of the world’s carbon pollution. This 10% will need to cut their carbon footprints by 90%.

 

Customers buying vegetables
Customers buying vegetables at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market in London UK Photo credit: Tony Farrugia / Alamy

Not every lifestyle change is equal – some count more than others.

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.

The changes we can make that really matter are reducing or eliminating flying, eating less red meat and driving less, as well as using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency in our homes.

 

 

Installing solar panels
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Many of our choices are limited by the physical environment around us: whether there are options to cycle or get a bus to work, whether we have access to affordable low-carbon food, or whether there are incentives and financial support for low-carbon choices in housing and household energy.

 

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This is where governments play a role, by setting the conditions for low-carbon lifestyles through system change: better rail infrastructure, cycle-to-work schemes, eco-funding for homes and ensuring low-carbon food options in schools and grocery stores.

 

installing railway line
Rail construction workers installing new tracks and points in Forres, Scotland Photo credit: Peter Devlin / Alamy

Changing the way we live not only reduces our carbon footprint but helps to shift social norms. The more we can see change happening around us – people like us taking steps towards low-carbon lifestyles – the quicker change will happen.

Lifestyle change isn’t just about how we consume and travel.

It’s also about volunteering, donating, investing, marching and voting for climate action, and talking about climate change with those around us: family, friends, colleagues and members of our communities.

 

Counting votes
General Election Vote Count held at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK Photo credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy

The emissions gap remains, and the world is currently not on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

To be on track, everybody – governments, businesses, individuals (particularly those with the biggest footprints) – has a part to play.

When social norms start to shift, low-carbon lifestyles become desirable and mainstream. Infrastructure shifts to ‘lock in’ positive changes and governments will heighten their ambition and commitment to ensuring we reduce emissions.

As the social mandate gets stronger, the emissions gap gets smaller, and our chances of creating a fairer, cleaner, and better world increase.

Lifestyle change makes system change possible.


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