Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

New book says individual climate action matters more than ever – when combined with political action, regulation and education

Excerpt from Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

Most of the world’s nations signed on to the Paris Agreement, promising to reduce their carbon emissions, but so far nobody has done very much. It’s hard when you have economies based on digging up fossil fuels and then manufacturing stuff that runs on them, emitting carbon at every step of the way. 

It’s harder when everyone wants more stuff, and the jobs all depend on us buying it. So, the only strategy anyone can think of is to produce more carbon-efficient stuff, to build electric cars instead of gasoline-powered, to burn natural gas instead of coal, to make more wind turbines and solar panels, and to dream of nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen.

This was actually working, to a degree: pre-pandemic, the rate of increase in carbon emissions was slightly less than the growth of the world’s economies. But even with all that greening going on, carbon emissions were still increasing by 1.3% on average, while the global economy expanded by about 3%.

And in 2019, global greenhouse gas emissions from all sources still reached a record high of 52.4 gigatonnes of CO2e. (The e stands for equivalents— other gases like methane or fluorocarbon refrigerants, some of which have many thousands of times the global warming potential of CO2.) When the economy booms, so do emissions.

The world loves growth, and nobody wants to see an economic seizure like we had during the pandemic happen again. Governments have been pouring vast sums into cranking up the economic engines, encouraging us to buy more stuff and more services, while almost completely ignoring the fact that to keep under a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees, we have to reduce our carbon emissions budget to 25 gigatonnes of CO2e by 2030, less than half of what we emitted in 2019.

Norman Mailer wrote, “There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.” Growth is the law of life, and the engine of growth runs on fossil fuels.

If we have any chance of getting close to the carbon budget for 2030, we have to change the way we think about growth. We have to stop thinking about production, the making of what everyone is selling, and start thinking about consumption, what we are buying.

We have to stop thinking about efficiency, making something slightly better, and start thinking about sufficiency: what do we really need?

The premise of this book, and the research it is based on, is that we are all collectively responsible for reducing our carbon emissions to keep under that 1.5-degree ceiling. We have that carbon budget set in Paris, and if you divide it by the number of people on Earth, we have a personal carbon allocation or budget target of “lifestyle emissions,” those emissions that we can control, of about 2.5 tonnes per person, per year by 2030. Getting by on this is what we are calling the 1.5-degree lifestyle.

But what is living on 2.5 tonnes of carbon actually like? How do you measure it? How much does individual consumption matter? These are some of the questions that this book will try to answer.

We will try and look at the carbon cost of everything that we do in our lives to help people make choices about what makes sense, what’s worth trying to change, and what isn’t. It’s a model that not only can influence our personal lives but also can guide policy, from urban planning to agriculture.

For many people, lifestyle carbon emissions are baked into the way we live and very hard to change without concomitant societal and environmental changes; our developed Western world seems almost designed to emit carbon. We are also creatures of habits that are difficult to shake. However, many habits changed in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was perhaps not the best time to start this journey; much of the planet was now living a low-carbon lifestyle whether they wanted to or not.

On the other hand, it may be the perfect time for changes. We can collectively work for system change, but also for individual change, a 1.5-degree lifestyle. It is based on living within a tight carbon budget, but if one makes the right choices, it is sufficient, and there is enough to go around for everyone.

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Of course, it requires more than individual action; it requires political action, regulation, and education. Perhaps the best example is the campaign against smoking, where we saw what happens when individuals, organizations, and government work together. Smoking was promoted by the industry, who buried information about its safety and owned the politicians and fought every change. They hired experts and even doctors to challenge the evidence and deny that smoking was harmful. They had a real advantage in that the product they were selling was physically addictive. However, eventually, in the face of all the evidence, the world changed. 

Forty years ago, almost everyone smoked, it was socially acceptable, and it happened everywhere. Governments applied education, regulation, and taxes. There was a lot of social shaming and stigmatizing happening too; in 1988, medical historian Allan Brandt wrote, “An emblem of attraction has become repulsive; a mark of sociability has become deviant; a public behavior now is virtually private.” Instead of virtue-signalling, we had vice-signalling. 

But this shift also took a great deal of individual determination and sacrifice. You can talk to almost anyone who was addicted and has given up smoking, and they will tell you that it was the hardest thing they have ever done. 

Fossil fuels are the new cigarettes. Their consumption has become a social marker; look at the role pickup trucks played in the 2020 American election. Like cigarettes, it is the secondhand externalized effects that are the motivators for action; people cared less when smokers were just killing themselves than they did when secondhand smoke became an issue. I wonder if at some point the big obnoxious pickup truck won’t be as rare as smokers have become. 

Lloyd Alter is design editor for Treehugger.com and lectures on sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design.

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