You Can Live a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, New Pilot Study Shows

A worldwide study pilot project shows it is doable for 69% of participants.

Living a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle can be fun
Living a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle can be fun.

Grant Faint / Getty Images

In a recent pilot project that I participated in, 69% of participants demonstrated they could live within the daily emissions budget of the 1.5 degree Celsius 2030 targets.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have to reduce our annual carbon emissions by about half by 2030 if we are going to have a chance of keeping under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). If you divide that global carbon budget by the population, you get an annual budget of 3.4 metric tonnes per person. Much of that budget (72% on average) or 2.5 metric tonnes, can be attributed to "lifestyle emissions"—the stuff that we can control or that is the result of decisions we have made.

Emissions targets

Living the 1.5 degree lifestyle means living a lifestyle where your total personal carbon emissions are less than 2.5 metric tons per year or 6.845 kilograms per day. After learning about it from a British activist, Rosalind Readhead, who pointed me to a study, I tried to do this and wrote a book about it, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle." In this book, I tracked my carbon on a spreadsheet. I also learned that I was not alone; there were people all over the world who were interested in this. There was the Hot or Cool Institute that was updating the original study, where Dr. Lewis Akenji wrote about fairness:

"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."

In my book, I noted that one of the big flaws in my exercise was that I was not really a representative sample.

"I always have to remember that it’s relatively easy for me to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle; I live in a place where I don’t have to drive and can walk to the fancy healthy butcher and organic grocer. I work at an internet-based job where I don’t have to go to a factory or an office downtown; I can just go downstairs to the home office that I designed. And I can’t write this book looking through my rose-colored glasses because it has to work for everyone."
Cover of report

That's why I was so excited to work with Kate Power of the Hot or Cool Institute in Berlin and a group of talented people on a pilot project, where participants from around the world try to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle for a month. Where my spreadsheet was pretty basic, João Wemans in Lisbon worked up an elaborate version, which anyone can use, that ingeniously calculated the embodied carbon of the stuff that you own, and Jean-Christophe Mortreux managed it all from Montreal. (See the whole team here.) It was all made possible by the support of the United Kingdom branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.


The spreadsheet is pretty daunting—I dreamt of a simple app as people use for fitness or diet—and many of the volunteers for the project bailed on it quickly, but 16 participants from the U.K., Canada, Nigeria, Germany, Portugal, and the U.S. stuck to it. Not only did they track their carbon, but they answered questions every week about how it was going.


This was considered a pilot project and it is hard to draw conclusions from such a small group, especially when they are kind of pre-selecting themselves. As the report admits, "It is important to note that even though the participants represented a diversity of countries, lifestyles, and background, they are mostly already knowledgeable about low carbon living and many had already made significant, long-term lifestyle changes to lower their environmental impacts."

Under the circumstances, it is hard to draw conclusions, but one could come up with hypotheses:

global results

Hypothesis 1: Most participants are able to live within the 2030 - 1.5 degree Celsius budget, using various “lifestyle recipes."

"Based on the data and processes from this 4-week real-world pilot project (while acknowledging the limitations of the pilot) 69% of the participants (11 out of 16) were able to live within the daily emissions budget of the 1.5°C 2030 targets."

As I found in my version of this, transportation can break the bank; driving a car is not consistent with living a 1.5 degree lifestyle, as participant 16 found out.

keep it up

Hypothesis 2: For many, 1.5 degree Celsius lifestyles require some learning and adaptation, but can be enjoyable and result in healthier ways of living.

"Through this 4-week experiment, many reported, in various settings, and for various demographics, that living within the 2030 targets was not only doable but even turned out to be beneficial for the participants. Many mentioned taking more time to nurture relationships, eat better and overall lead more physically active and healthy lives."

I came to much the same conclusion: It is a healthier, cheaper lifestyle and I have pretty much kept to it. As participants noted,

"Living within the 2030 1.5°C targets definitively foster a healthier, more self-conscious, and cheaper lifestyle. Moreover, it can be also very fun (yes, challenging as well!)"
"It reminded me how much of what I enjoy in life is very low impact — e.g. walking, spending time outside, spending time with people I love."

Hypothesis 3: Systemic barriers are the biggest perceived challenge for long-lasting emissions reduction by individuals.

"Although an encouraging 80% of participants say they can sustain or even improve the carbon footprint they achieved during this pilot, they mention experiencing important barriers that make it more difficult. 75% of the participants evaluate systemic barriers (local or global) as the main barrier against their individual achievements. This was also highlighted throughout the stories and group chats between the participants: challenges around mobility, food, housing, energy, etc."

The report continues: "In this way, this pilot demonstrates the potential for moving from abstract cries of 'we need systems change' to more nuanced advocacy for specific changes from relevant stakeholders. These nuances are critical now because the infrastructure and institutional shifts we set in motion now must take us to the massive but necessary challenge of achieving the 2050 targets: we cannot risk advocating 'in the dark' for systems changes that may not be sufficient or appropriate to ensure a good quality of life for all citizens within the 1.5°C targets."

This is again what we have written many times on Treehugger: Many of the system changes that we need will make it possible for people to live lower carbon lifestyles. So there should be safe bike lanes everywhere so that people do not have to drive; there should be building and zoning codes that promote low-carbon housing and 15-minute cities. As participants noted:

"As public transportations are not developed as they should be, and no trains run from the city to the outer parts of the region, I had to spend a huge part (1/3) of my daily budget in traveling by car from the city of Rome, where my family is based during the week and our house in the countryside."
"Montreal is a city that has both, very dense areas and suburban sprawl. It’s therefore not always easy to see family and friends without using a car or possibly spending 4 to 6 hours in mass transit."
“Our daily choices can definitively influence the level of our emissions, but infrastructures, government services, and systems have a huge impact on it. If train connections between Germany and Italy were cheaper and faster, I would have not been forced to choose flight over train. Same for the transport system in my home town, where many are forced to take the car to reach some destinations within and outside the city.”

When the project was being designed I was a bit dubious about the "stories," the weekly questions put to the participants, but it has actually turned out to be as interesting as the numeric results. Participants are learning lessons that I have been writing about on Treehugger forever, to no avail, such as the issue of embodied carbon:

"The first thing I learned, as I filled in my long-term emissions, was how much carbon is embodied in a home. I’d never thought about the footprint of making the washing machine, the freezer, the fridge, the oven, let alone the radios, the TV and clothing."

The study concludes:

"The pilot successfully demonstrated that it’s possible to engage people from various countries in tracking their emissions, and start to build a community of people dedicated to exploring what living 1.5°C compatible lifestyles means in real life."

Since I published my book, I have found that there is a substantial community trying to live sustainable lifestyles, and many have asked for access to my spreadsheet. I have been reticent because the data and the setup were not all that good. The data on the 1five spreadsheet is very good indeed, with sources provided. The embodied carbon calculator is brilliant, dividing the carbon up over the expected life of the item, so once that is past, it is considered free.

The biggest criticism of my book and much of my writing about the need for lifestyle changes is the claim that worrying about personal carbon footprints was a distraction foisted on us by oil companies and that instead, we have to fight for system change.

Global emissions from participants
Global emissions from participants: Food and mobility dominate.

But what the 1five pilot tells us is what systemic problems we have to fix. We learn that transportation has to change, to get us out of cars and on to public transit or bikes. Agriculture has to change, with less reliance on red meat. Housing has to change, to be designed out of low-carbon materials, operating with carbon-free energy, built-in walkable communities. And finally, we have to change our attitudes toward consumption, buy less stuff and keep it longer; when you crunch everything you buy through that embodied carbon calculator, it all adds up very fast.

Then it will be relatively easy for everyone to live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, and as the participants noted, it's "a healthier, more self-conscious, and cheaper lifestyle. Moreover, it can be also very fun!"

Read the 1five report PDF and copy the spreadsheet on the 1five website.

View Article Sources
    1. Edgar G. Hertwich and Glen P. Peters, "Carbon Footprint of Nations: A Global, Trade-Linked Analysis." Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 43, no. 16, 2009, pp. 6414-6429. doi:10.1021/es803496a
  1. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Aalto University, and D-mat ltd, "1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Footprints." Technical Report, 2019