How Can We Make 1.5 Degree Lifestyles Equitable?

It's not just about individual action, but can be government policy.

Change is coming whether you like it or not
Change is coming.

In Green / Shutterstock

The 1.5 degree lifestyle is where people live their lives in a manner where the average per capita carbon emissions are consistent with keeping the climate heating below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius)—a number that seems more like a dream every day. Treehugger has covered studies about it and I wrote a book about it. Most of the discussions are about personal behavior change (get a bike!) versus system change (100 oil companies are responsible!).

A new study from ZOE, the Institute for Future-Fit Economies, titled "Equitable 1.5 Degree Lifestyles: How Socially Fair Policies Can Support the Implementation of the European Green Deal" (PDF here), takes a different approach: It tries to outline policy pathways that encourage low-carbon living and discourage the high-fliers. The study notes:

"Climate change and socioeconomic inequality reinforce one another, with the effects of the former hitting the most vulnerable the hardest, including lower-income groups, while the rising consumption of “luxury goods” – goods for which demand increases proportionately larger than increases in income – by high-income groups contributes to the acceleration of climate change. Therefore, tackling unsustainable consumption patterns is at the heart of addressing this causality." 

The report notes, as we have often: "The most significant determinant of a person’s carbon footprint is income. Today, the richest 10% of the global population are responsible for almost half of total consumption-related emissions while the poorest 50% account for only about 10%." 

It also calls for a fair distribution of responsibility:

"Next to be effective in tackling GHG emissions climate policies need also be explicitly designed in a way that is fair. 1.5-Degree Lifestyles can be diverse as long as they stay within ecological boundaries. To be equitable, however, these policies should strengthen the prospects of the most vulnerable groups to live a good life while reducing the carbon-intensive consumption patterns of high-income groups." 

This is where the trouble always starts, with the rich—and with the top 10%, this is not a high threshold—complaining that a "fair distribution of responsibility" means higher redistributive taxes. But we are talking carbon here, not money, and you don't pay a carbon tax if you don't burn fossil fuels, so it is a matter of the choices we make and the stuff that we buy. What this study does that is interesting is separate luxury from necessity, so that one can figure out what is a want versus a need.

"Goods are considered “luxury goods” when the income elasticity is above 1, meaning that the consumption of the product rises by more than 1 % when income rises by 1 %. Lower-income groups spend proportionally less of their income on such goods. The strong growth in the consumption of luxury goods among wealthier parts of the population is at least one of the reasons why the emissions reductions are so unevenly distributed between income groups."
Energy intensity of basic goods
Energy intensity of basic and luxury goods.


This graph is the most interesting in the report, showing that heat and electricity are the biggest carbon bubble but also a basic need, while they consider the second biggest bubble, vehicle fuel, to be a luxury. Many in North America would argue that point, and the report acknowledges that even in Europe, it is an issue.

"Mobility, for example, meaning the ability to move between places for work, shopping, or leisure, is clearly a need. The purchase or possession of a car, however, must be recognized in a more nuanced way. When good public infrastructure is available, car ownership is a desire, because there are many other ways to satisfy the need like biking, traveling with public transport or participating in car-sharing schemes. However, many poorer households are often living outside of areas well-served by public infrastructure. They are thus more dependent on cars. The same holds true for people with walking disabilities. In these cases, cars might not at all be a desire, but truly satisfy a need and so are not optional for the time being. Changing infrastructures, from more accessible public transport to safe and commercial-free recreation areas within all neighborhoods can however help to establish new and better ways to satisfy needs."
Comparative footprints


It is pretty obvious why it's important to tackle the problem of the richest 10%: their emissions are huge, over twice those of the next 40%. And the richest 1% are the only group where emissions are actually increasing. One suggestion for dealing with this is what they call a "consumption corridor."

"The idea of consumption corridors demonstrates how living well within planetary boundaries can be approached. Consumption corridors are defined by minimum consumption standards as a floor and maximum consumption standards as a ceiling. Minimum standards are those needed to allow every individual in the present or in the future to satisfy their needs and to live a good life, safeguarding access to the necessary quality and quantity of ecological and social resources. Maximum consumption standards are needed as well to ensure that consumption by some individuals does not threaten the opportunity for others to have a good life."

In other words, the emissions from the rich are affecting everyone and should be limited. This will not play well in many countries. I suspect many Americans will be appalled by the concept and I am braced for the comments. On the other hand, it is based on carbon; the rich can go out and buy electric cars and solar panels, do luxury passive house renovations and take the train to St. Moritz so their carbon emissions fall within the corridor. They will be fine; they usually are.

The report concludes with a call to action: "Stronger measures directed at the emissions of wealthier segments of the population in order to make 1.5-Degree Lifestyles equitable and acceptable. A useful tool in this context is to envision the lifestyles of European citizens flourishing within a consumption corridor that is shaped by a floor of minimum social consumption standards and an environmentally informed ceiling with maximum consumption standards. This can help ensure that no one is indeed left behind, both now and in future generations."

After writing my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I received not a small amount of criticism suggesting that individual actions don't matter and that instead, we needed policy and system change. What's so interesting about this study and others from ZOE, such as "Policy Pathways towards 1.5-Degree Lifestyles," is it is about policy and government action. Someday we may all be living in that 1.5 degree consumption corridor.

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