Individual Actions Can Reduce Emissions Up to 70%, Says IPCC Report

Yes, personal actions and changes do matter after all. It's the 1.5-degree lifestyle.

An image of a cyclist riding over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Cycling instead of driving is a modal shift.

Leonardo Patrizi / Getty Images

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 3 report was a tough pill to swallow. In the aftermath of its release, I wrote a summary, "IPCC Report Is a Prescription for Fixing the Climate Crisis," noting it laid out a path of what we had to do and it was an optimistic call to action. Or, as climate journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt put it in The Guardian, "The report made one thing abundantly clear: the technologies and policies necessary to adequately address climate change exist, and the only real obstacles are politics and fossil fuel interests."

A graph showing renewables dropping in price

IPCC

There is much negativity since the report came out, especially around the question of whether we can actually stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But there is so much to be optimistic about, including the incredible drop in the prices of renewables and their increasing adoption.

The report also was, for me, a bit of a vindication. Last year I wrote a book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," with the subtitle, "Why individual climate action matters more than ever." It looked at the demand side—at what individuals can do to reduce their carbon emissions. So does the IPCC report, particularly in chapter 5. It starts off with a bang, claiming that "the potential of demand-side strategies across all sectors is 40-70% by 2050." 

A graphic showing demand side mitigation

IPCC

Also in the first paragraph, the authors state that "to enhance well-being, people demand services and not primary energy and physical resources per se." This is an insight we have tried to discuss for years on Treehugger—the old "you want a hole, not a drill." You want to get from A to B, not a car. You want to not freeze in your home, not a furnace.

Julia Steinberger, environmental economist and a contributing author to the IPCC report, tells Westervelt for Drilled News: "All we need is services; that's what there is demand for. We don't need the energy use itself. So let's think about how we deliver those services in a more efficient way."

Welcome to the 1.5-degree lifestyle. But it is hard to do when society and the economy are essentially set up to encourage us to burn fossil fuels and to create demand for consumables we don't really need.

However, as we have often said on Treehugger, with the right design choices, we can reduce or eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. For example, the IPCC report says, "Demand for space heating and cooling depends on building materials and designs." Passivhaus combined with heat pumps can run on teensy bits of renewable energy. Or, as the report states regarding personal mobility, "Different variable needs satisfiers (e.g., street space allocated to cars, buses or bicycles) can help satisfy human needs, such as accessibility to jobs, health care, and education."

The report uses what it calls an "avoid-shift-improve" strategy to develop options for different categories. So, using mobility as an example, you might "avoid" driving by working from home or living in a compact city; "shift" by moving from car to bike; and "improve" by designing lighter, electric cars.

In other categories, it looks something like this:

  Avoid  Shift Improve
Mobility Teleworking compact cities fewer long-haul flights Modal shifts from car to cycling  Lightweight vehicles hydrogen vehicles electric vehicles
Shelter Smaller decent dwellings Less material-intensive designs Use wood as material
Thermal Comfort Change temperature settings change dress code Architectural design with shading and natural ventilation More insulation low-carbon materials heat pumps
Goods Reduce consumption sharing economy Material efficient designs Low-carbon materials
Nutrition Reduce calories consumed to health guidelines Shift away from ruminant meat and dairy Improved agricultural practices

Changes in diet are a particularly interesting example because small-scale changes can add up to big carbon savings. The report states: "Current literature on health, diets and emissions indicates that sustainable food systems providing healthy diets for all are within reach but require significant cross-sectoral action, including improved agricultural practices, dietary shifts among consumers, and food waste reductions in production, distribution, retail, and consumption." It can all add up to as much as 5.8 gigatonnes per year—a big chunk of the emissions gap. That's all through eating and raising less red meat and dairy, not wasting food, and not eating more than we need.

The report also points out that "implementation of these solutions requires combinations of institutional infrastructural, behavioral, socio-cultural, and business changes." We have to change the way we live, work, buy, and eat. But all of this is doable with the right mix of incentives and disincentives, using what they call "choice architecture," which "describes the presentation of choices to consumers, and the impact that presentation has on consumer decision-making."

And of course, much of the problem has to do with inequality—how the top 10% are responsible for half the carbon, with the average carbon footprint of the richest being 175 times that of the bottom 10%. The bottom 50% contribute just 15% of emissions.

According to the IPCC report:

"In wealthy nations, services such as private road transport, frequent air travel, private jet ownership, meat-intensive diets, entertainment and leisure add significant emissions, while a considerable fraction of the carbon footprint is imported from abroad, embedded in goods and services."

The authors suggest inequality actually encourages more emissions, "where individuals spend more to emulate the standards of the high-income group," which is also known as the Veblen Effect. We are not going to get them to give all that up overnight.

Many also suffer from a form of "lock-in", living in houses in the suburbs where they have to drive everywhere with jobs they have to commute to. The report does offer one solution to this: digitization, reducing the amount of stuff we own (since everything can be done on a phone), and reducing the distances we have to drive. This was addressed in my book and on Treehugger, along with the idea of the 15-Minute City and the relocalization of business and services.

It's very hard to get people to make individual changes when the system makes it so difficult; you can't get them on bikes if there isn't a safe place to ride or a secure place to lock them. It's harder to get people out of cars when politicians panic every time the price of gas goes up.

Readers must think that I have lost it completely, suggesting we have the problem solved—that we can get the 10% and the 1% to change their way of life so radically in a couple of years. I preemptively respond by noting it is actually not that radical at all, especially for the richest people who have the most choices.

What's more, we have seen changes happen fast when the pandemic hit, and what the sudden loss of demand for their product did to the oil, gas, and airline businesses. People can do this with the right mix of nudges, regulations, and cultural shifts; look what happened with smoking.

Of course, we still have, as Westervelt notes, fossil fuel companies that want to keep drilling, car companies that want to keep selling, and politicians who want to keep their jobs pandering to every homeowner and car driver. But we also have an IPCC report that is powerful reading and provides the kind of research that might change some minds and some votes. We have a plan.

I am not alone in my optimism. Here is a great thread from Auke Hoekstra, a renewable energy expert.

View Article Sources
  1. "Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation." Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. International Panel on Climate Change.

  2. "Summary for Policymakers.Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. International Panel on Climate Change.

  3. Gore, Tim. "Confronting Carbon Inequality: Putting climate justice at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery." Oxfam International. 21 Sept. 2020.