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Moving towards low-carbon lifestyles: a question of collective action

Date: 2019-12-19


Originally published on the CUSP blog 

Our way of life must change if we want to avoid climate breakdown — but how much can we do as individuals? Ahead of the upcoming ICTA-UAB Conference on Low-Carbon Lifestyle Changes, Joël Foramitti, Lorraine Whitmarsh and Angela Druckman are outlining a roadmap.


Recent news about the state of our planet is alarming. Scientists warn about an “existential threat to civilization”, as we might already be crossing a series of climate tipping points that could lead to the irreversible loss of, for example, the West Antarctic ice sheet and the Amazon rain forest. Thanks to social movements, awareness of this problem has risen considerably. But we are currently failing to take the necessary actions, and greenhouse gas levels continue to rise. We are trapped in a culture that seeks status and fun through consumerism, in a political debate that is manipulated by vested interests of the fossil fuel industry, and in an economic system that is perceived to become unstable if there is a lack of economic growth.

In this commentary we discuss some promising ways to move towards low-carbon lifestyles – a topic that is the subject of the upcoming ICTA-UAB Conference on Low-Carbon Lifestyle Changes. Before going further, we need to make it clear that our arguments apply mostly to Western cultures, as these are where most emissions are caused and where changes towards low-carbon lifestyles are most necessary. Furthermore, the choices discussed here do not generally apply to people on low incomes, as they tend to have lower carbon footprints and less financial freedom to choose.

Our central argument is that the emissions of our economy are deeply connected to the way we live: the goals we pursue, the values and practices we share, the stuff we buy, and the jobs in which we work. All these add up to a culture that supports an unsustainable economy. There are many who advocate that technology will solve the problems, and who believe in the possibility of ‘green growth’; but while technological innovations and improvements in efficiency can reduce emissions, their potential is limited. The only other solution would be to develop negative emission technologies, but this has been argued to be an ‘unjust and high-stakes gamble’.  It hence seems unlikely that the climate crisis can be solved without changes in lifestyles. Indeed, the latest IPCC report claims that decreasing energy demand and more sustainable consumption patterns are key elements to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

So, if we want to reduce emissions with certainty and speed, we need to produce and consume differently, and less. Some might object to this, saying that we should rather regulate and tax the fossil fuel industry directly. And it is true that preventing pollution at its source is likely to be the most effective approach to reduce emissions. But if we want to avoid major social disruption (think of the protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices and its unjust implications in France, Chile, Mexico, and Iran), we need to take steps to disentangle our lives from our dependency on fossil fuels.

Crucially, some lifestyle changes matter more than others. In particular, reducing the amount we travel and cutting down on meat and dairy are the most effective things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprints. In the UK, for example, food choices and travel make up over half of all emissions. So, avoiding flying and driving, as well as eating a plant-based diet, would make a big difference to climate change. By comparison, changing light bulbs and recycling are relatively less beneficial – yet, these are the actions most people in developed countries like the UK are currently taking.

Not only do some behaviours matter more than others; some groups are more polluting than others. Ten percent of the world’s population is responsible for half of its emissions. Inequality is therefore an important aspect of climate change – both within and between countries. Those groups and nations who have polluted the most are also the most resilient to the devastating impacts of climate change; while the poorest who have polluted least are most vulnerable. Hence a ‘just transition’ is vital for effective climate change mitigation, not only because it addresses this fundamental injustice but because it is more likely to be acceptable to the public. The protests mentioned above have not been against climate measures, but against social injustice.

Linked to this, advocating voluntary lifestyle changes is unlikely to work – because of the ‘free-rider problem’. That is, in the absence of penalties for polluting choices, self-interest will lead most individuals to continue to pollute. For many, the sense that climate change is a global and collective problem – and the apparent lack of action by other groups and countries to tackle climate change – leads them to feel that their own actions don’t matter and that it is unfair to be asked to ‘make sacrifices’.

To overcome this dilemma, we must act collectively. Therefore, lifestyle changes are not only a question of individual consumption choices, but also one of political action. Participation in social movements or other forms of political engagement might be the most relevant path of action for individuals to take. Without a better-informed public discourse and transparent democratic decision-making, it will be difficult to act on the climate emergency.

But what exactly should change? Tim Jackson argues that we are currently living in “an ‘infrastructure of consumption’ that sends all the wrong signals, penalising pro-environmental behaviour, making it all but impossible even for highly motivated people to act sustainably without personal sacrifice.” Insights from environmental psychology suggest that we should create an environment in which sustainable behaviour becomes (1) as easy as possible, (2) the most affordable option, and (3) the normal thing to do, i.e. becoming the new social default or norm.

One of the aims of the upcoming ICTA-UAB Conference is to better understand such psychological barriers and work towards concrete policy proposals for governments to take. While we cannot give clear proposals at this stage, we kick off the debate here with three suggested areas of change, all of which are vital.

The first is that we need to tackle the structures within which we live in order to facilitate individual behaviour change. We need to create infrastructures to enable and encourage different modes of living – a concrete example would be to reinstitute night trains throughout Europe. We need to make unnecessary wasteful behaviour (like disposable single-use products) and the use of polluting luxury goods, (like private jets) unacceptable or prohibited. And we need to send the right price signals: for example, train travel should be more affordable than aviation (which is currently heavily subsidised).

Another imperative is to reform the economic system: we need to shift away from GDP being the default metric of the economy, and replace the ubiquitous goal of economic growth with one that represents progress toward achieving sustainable prosperity for all, now and into the future.

Finally, we need to find a path towards an international agreement on climate action. One such path could be the creation of a climate club amongst willing nations that would create incentives for the rest of the world to join. Such an alliance could then implement a globally agreed carbon price or a ban on further fossil fuel extraction.

All that said, individual and local actions are still relevant. They can signal new norms, influence public discourse, and experiment with alternatives. A different way of life becomes only thinkable if there are examples that show it to be possible. Furthermore, research has shown that environmental communicators have more credibility and influence if they live what they preach.

Behaviour is also strongly shaped by our shared visions on what it means to live well. Fortunately,  a good life does not need to be high-carbon – far from it. Fulfilment in life can come from many non-material factors, like the feeling of doing meaningful work, a sense of belonging within one’s community, living in accordance to one’s values, and a healthy natural environment. Buying less stuff has been associated with increased wellbeing. There are health benefits to reducing red meat consumption and to increasing active travel (walking and cycling).  And working less can give people more time for social interaction and care, as well as to repair and maintain instead of consumption.

To conclude, avoiding climate breakdown will have to go hand in hand with cultural changes. We need to stop polluting behaviour collectively, develop new visions of a good life, an economic system that can support this, and a genuine democracy that can act and create the necessary infrastructure for such a new culture to emerge.

This might seem difficult to imagine, but so has every major social transformation in the past until it happened. Trying our best is all we can do.

Call for Papers
This article has been written in preparation for the upcoming ICTA-UAB International Conference on Low-Carbon Lifestyle Changes that will take place from May 6-8 2020 in Barcelona. Contributions can be submitted until 15 January 2020. More information under lifestyle-changes.org.

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