Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle Is Good For You, Study Finds

Demand-side solutions are 'consistent with high levels of well-being.'

Asian woman waits for red double decker city bus with smartphone in hand

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

It has been fashionable of late to claim that personal actions and changes that reduce demand for carbon dioxide-producing products and services are a distraction. Instead, they say we should be dealing with government regulation and the supply side—the corporations that make fossil fuels and other sources of carbon.

But as Treehugger's Sami Grover put it so well, "The systems change versus behavior change debate is getting really old." We need to deal with both the supply and the demand. I tried to make the case in my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," that we should all be trying to reduce demand, to live a low-carbon life to keep global heating below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) but concluded that there were other benefits: "These changes can be healthy and fun: more exercise, more walking and cycling, more taking advantage of activities in our own backyards."

Now, a new study—titled "Demand-side solutions to climate change mitigation consistent with high levels of well-being"—concurs, expressing that trying to live a low-carbon lifestyle is good for you. Lead authors Felix Creutzig and Leila Niamir first demonstrate that "demand-side mitigation strategies" in the buildings, transport, food, and industry sectors could provide emissions reductions of between 40% and 80%, depending on the sector.

These are big reductions, but Creutzig and Niamir propose big changes through a mix of carbon avoidance, shifts to low carbon alternatives, and efficiency improvements.

  • "Improve" options include more efficient building envelopes, appliances, and more efficient energy use by industry sectors.
  • "Shift" options are related to transportation, including a modal shift to walking, cycling, and shared mobility. It also applies to food, shifting to flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diets. "These are options that require physical and choice infrastructures that support low-carbon choices, such as safe and convenient transit corridors and desirable and affordable meat-free menu options," write the authors. "They also require end users to adopt these choices, individually and socially. "
  • "Avoid" options are across the board. "Cities play an additional role, as more compact designs and higher accessibility reduce demand for distanced travel and car mobility and also translate into lower average floor size and corresponding heating, cooling and lighting demand," the authors write.

How to Reduce Demand, by Sector


In the building sector, avoiding carbon emissions does not just come from building efficiency, but also from sufficiency—through smaller dwellings, shared facilities, and changes in building typology that favor multi-family buildings, which we have been saying for years.

Sometimes they are confused, pitching 3D printing of buildings to reduce waste, even though the few 3D printed buildings built so far are made with concrete, which they also say we should use less of.

Sometimes they just get it wrong and don't understand the studies that they are reading. One sentence—"Other options include designing passive houses that use thermal mass and smart controllers to avoid demand for space-conditioning services"—seemed muddled, so I followed the reference to the study, "Advances Toward a Net-Zero Global Building Sector," which is written by Passivhaus experts who never link Passive House to thermal mass; the authors are confusing '70s style passive design with the dreadfully named "Passive House." The linked study also never mentions smart controllers because, as I have noted before, in a Passive House, a smart controller would be bored stupid.

One can complain that they don't get everything right, but this is a sprawling, generalist study that is looking at many aspects of our lives and relies on dozens of contributors.

Urban Design

In the urban design sector, there is a sophisticated list of measures including compact cities, and a circular, shared economy: "Shared spaces and facilitates: energy co-ops, group purchasing, libraries, repair cafes, food production and consumption; food sharing."

Mobility and Accessibility

For mobility and accessibility, they call for more working from home, walking, and cycling instead of driving. The authors write: "Pooled shared mobility with high occupancy and micro-mobility with high lifetime of vehicle stock; convenient rail-based public transit; supported by urban design and transit-oriented development resulting in reduced travel distances; logistic optimization in last-mile freight."

Food and Nutrition

For food and nutrition, they look at animal-free protein with "food-based dietary guidelines; food labels; educational campaigns; subsidies/taxes; voluntary sustainability standards" and also address overconsumption and food waste.

Products and Materials

With products and materials (industry), the authors call for materials efficient services, lifespan extension, and to reuse and recycle. Materials efficient services involve "avoided material demand through dematerialization, the sharing economy, materials-efficient designs, and yield improvements in manufacturing," while lifespan extension involves "designing products so that their lifetime can be extended through repair, refurbishing, and remanufacturing."

They also want to reduce flying with a big carbon tax, improve trains, and reduce demand for shipping by "shifting supply chains, lower demand for consumption goods, and slow steaming of ships would reduce shipping demand substantially."

How Does All This Affect Well-Being?

A table of effects of demand side options
Effects of demand-side options on well-being in 19 different categories.

Creutzig, Niamir, et al.

This is where it gets interesting. It is all charted out here in 19 different categories, with much more detail in the supplementary information. (A bigger version can be seen here.)

"Our study shows that, among all demand-side option effects on well-being, 79% (242 out of 306) are positive, 18% (56 out of 306) are neutral (or not relevant/specify) and 3% (8 out of 306) are negative. Active mobility (cycling and walking), efficient buildings, and prosumer choices of renewable technologies have the most encompassing beneficial effects on well-being with no negative outcome detected." 
How mitigation strategies work in an urban sector.

Creutzig, Niamir, et al.

The supplementary information has an explanation for every single square on that chart. It is all fascinating, and their conclusions are inescapable:

"Our results matter regarding the core challenge of climate change mitigation. Even the most optimistic upscaling of low-carbon technologies would remain insufficient to meet currently projected energy demand in 2050, as approximately required by the Paris Agreement. Demand-side reduction strategies hence provide the essential breathing space needed for meeting climate targets in the short and medium term. We also show that these are consistent with improved well-being."

It all reminds me of that great old Joel Pett cartoon—"What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?"—with all those benefits of livable cities, clean air, and healthy children. It doesn't take a massive study to conclude that eating a healthier diet, walking more, and having cleaner air is going to generally be a good thing, but it's nice to have.