Study Shows Why We Need 1.5 Degree Lifestyles and How to Get There

Without addressing lifestyles we will not be able to address climate change.

cover of 1.5 Degree Study

Hot or Cool institute

"1.5 Degree Lifestyles: Toward a Fair Consumption Space for All" is a major update of the 2019 study "1.5 Degree Lifestyles"—and the inspiration for my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle"—that demonstrated "changes in consumption patterns and dominant lifestyles are a critical and integral part of the solutions package to address climate change." 

While it might seem pretty obvious, it turned out to be controversial, especially in the United States among those who call for system change, not personal change. But as Treehugger's Sami Grover notes in his new book, "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now," they are not contradictory—it is not one or the other.

The updated report makes this very clear: We need both. As the report notes:

"The question of individual behaviour change versus systems change is a false dichotomy. Lifestyles choices are enabled and constrained by social norms and the physical environment or infrastructure... It is important to differentiate between the factors that can be addressed at the individual level and those that are beyond individual control, and to recognise how the two are mutually reinforcing."

The new expanded report is supported by more organizations and led by the Hot or Cool Institute. It covers more countries and has greater detail, with both coordinated by Dr. Lewis Akenji, now with Hot or Cool. It makes it very clear that lifestyle changes are going to be required if we are going to have a chance of staying under the carbon budget needed to restrain the global temperature rise:

"While generally overlooked in our pursuit of technological solutions to climate change, failing to shift the lifestyles of nearly eight billion human beings means we can never effectively reduce GHG emissions or successfully address our global climate crisis. This becomes especially complex, considering that the most impoverished populations will need to consume more, in order to achieve basic levels of wellbeing."

This report will likely be controversial in the United States, where even the Secretary of Energy doesn't believe that personal actions make much difference. But as Akenji notes:

“Talking about lifestyle changes is a hot-potato issue to policymakers who are afraid to threaten the lifestyles of voters. This report brings a science based approach and shows that without addressing lifestyles we will not be able to address climate change.”

It's still a hot potato. The report will also raise eyebrows because it introduces the concept of "a fair consumption space," with a more equitable distribution of the limited carbon budgets: People in poor countries get more, and people in rich countries have to face serious cuts in per capita emissions. 

Carbon Flows
Peters et al.

It is also using consumption-based accounting, based on direct operating emissions but also the embodied emissions (what I call the upfront carbon emissions) which makes it hard to blame China for everything. For example, if I buy a Haier conditioner, I not only have to measure the operating emissions, but also the carbon released making the steel and copper for it, assembling it, and shipping it. Those emissions belong to me, not to China. An air conditioner is a particularly difficult example because the report looks at full greenhouse gas footprints, including methane, nitrogen oxide, and refrigerants.

It analyzed lifestyle carbon footprints in 10 countries, up from five in the first study, representing high, middle, and low-income countries, and including two English-speaking countries: the United Kingdom and Canada. 

I wondered why the United States wasn't included, given its importance and the size of its footprint. Akenji tells Treehugger: "The U.S. usually gets a lot of attention in such reports. Without the US "distracting" we wanted to draw attention to the fact that other countries cannot just keep pointing at the US and not do anything about their own."

As in the original report, the study looked at six domains: food, housing, transport, consumer goods, leisure, and services. The first report listed the first three as "hot spots" but I found when writing my book that consumer goods were pretty hot, and the updated report does too. 

how we got to 2.5 tonnes

1.5 degree lifestyle report

Remember that fairness is a key part of this concept. We have a carbon budget of so many gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to stay under the heating target of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). Emissions have to drop quickly. If you do the math and divide that carbon budget by the world's population, you get a personal lifestyle carbon footprint of those things that we can control of 2.5 tonnes of carbon per person per year as the 2030 target.

Footprints of 10 Countries

Hot or Cool Institute

But as the table shows, some people are not even close to this. The Canadians, with a lifestyle pretty close to that of Americans, lead at 14.2 tonnes per year, followed by Finland.


Hot or Cool Institute

Some of the differences between countries are surprising: Canada consumes more of everything, even more meat than Brazil.


Hot or Cool Institute

Why do the British fly more than anyone else? Is it all Ryanair and Easyjet making it so cheap?


Hot or Cool Institute

Why does Japanese housing, which generally has a small physical footprint, have such a high carbon footprint? And once again, why are Canadians consistently such carbon hogs? In every single category, Canadians lead in consumption per category, even in shopping.

Consumer goods

Hot or Cold Institute

What Can We Do?

So how do we change this? What could a Canadian possibly do to get their footprint down from 14.2 to 2.5? There are three options:

  • Absolute reduction: just consuming less, driving less, occupying less space.
  • Modal Shift: biking instead of driving, going vegan.
  • Efficiency Improvement: building more efficient buildings and cars, etc.

How do we possibly get people to do this? Here, we get into a bit of a push with a dose of system change, or "choice editing" through policy interventions that limit unsustainable options, much like was done with smoking.

"Lifestyles impacts of climate change are accelerated by cultural norms that encourage consumerism, are driven by advertising, exacerbated by planned obsolescence, and are proliferating in a growth-driven macro- economic context that depends on ever increasing private and public consumption. Some of the products flooding the market and contributing to climate change, arguably, neither have a function nor contribute to the wellbeing of consumers, their existence predicated on fulfilling a profit motive."

That's where system change comes into play, with a few rules and regulations. This has been done already with light bulbs and refrigerant changes, and with CAFE and building code changes to increase energy efficiency. Plastic bag taxes or carbon taxes do the same. Clearly, we need a bit more choice editing.

Another problem that has to be dealt with is the "lock-in" effects where choices are limited. For instance, if there is no transit, people often have no choice but to drive. So governments and authorities have to ensure that the infrastructure and policies are in place so that people actually can have options. The report notes: "The shifts in lifestyles that are needed to meet the 1.5°C target thus need both systems and individual behaviour change."

Then there is the problem of the "polluter elite" — also known as the very rich. Time for serious taxes.

"In addition to their own high carbon-intensive lifestyles, the polluter elite also hold more responsibility because as decision makers they approve lobbying of governments (funding lobbyists and direct donations to political parties) to block the transition away from fossil fuels. With their wealth and access to those in decision making positions, they have contributed to lock-in the consumption options of ordinary citizens to be dependent on fossil fuels e.g. diesel and petrol vehicles, plastic packaging, coal and gas for electricity, heating, and cooking."


The report recognizes that efficiency and technology cannot solve this on their own, but we also need sufficiency—the determination of what is enough. "Unsurprisingly, sufficiency is perceived as controversial by the wealthiest consumers as it challenges their carbon-intensive lifestyles," notes the report. This is the understatement of the report, with calls for caps on floor area per capita in housing to reduce demand for materials and upfront emissions and operating emissions. With cars, there should be regulation of vehicle weight, size, and speed.

"Urban planning and land use policies play a major role in triggering or avoiding the daily travelled distances," states the report. "High density, multi-functional areas, teleworking, as well as progressive taxation of frequent flyers and owners of multiple cars and private jets are among the sufficiency solutions to limit emissions from mobility." We would need to move from a linear use of materials to circular by reducing, reusing, recycling, and producing locally.

They even consider carbon rationing; everyone gets their fair share and can sell what they don't use. 

This will no doubt be a controversial report, seeming to demand so much from citizens. The Sebastian Gorka types in the U.S. will say, "They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” They are not wrong. But the alternatives are not so terrible; a nice little appropriate electric vehicle can do the job. Who wouldn't want a cozy warm little home with good air quality? Beyond Burgers aren't bad. Sufficiency also has its own rewards: If you are not making payments on a $60,000 pickup truck you don't need to earn so much money. It's actually an attractive vision of the future.

And as the report concludes:

"The world is sorely in need of visions that can inspire and guide us to a sustainable future civilization... Most campaigns currently emphasise reductions and familiar ways of living that will be lost, and not enough innovation, regeneration, and inspiration from the past. Visions need to show opportunities to meet needs differently through satisfiers that are less resource and carbon-intensive." 

Two and a half tonnes per person is not a lot, but almost all of it is in our diet, our housing, and our transportation. We know how to fix all of those right now. And if the richest 10% of the population practice a bit of sufficiency, there will be enough for everyone.

Download the whole report from the Hot or Cool Insitute, or the shorter executive summary here