Opinion

Climate change and lifestyle choices

Do we need drastic changes in our lifestyles so that we can meet our climate ambitions by 2050?

By: Date: June 9, 2021 Topic: Green economy

This piece was originally published in the Money Review section of Kathimerini and El Economista.

In the European Union, support for fighting climate change is very strong. Almost all (93%) of EU citizens see climate change as a serious problem according to a recent survey, and 79% consider it a very serious problem. Europeans want their governments to do more to move to cleaner energy. A staggering 92% – and more than eight in ten individuals in each EU country – agrees with the objectives of the EU’s net-zero strategy, the European Green Deal.

Under the Green Deal, which is without doubt the most ambitious such initiative globally, climate neutrality would be achieved by 2050. Achieving that requires reducing greenhouse-gas emissions as much as possible, as well as removing any remaining emissions either naturally or even mechanically. Such a goal will require effort from everyone.

In terms of top-down internal measures to get to the goal, the EU plans to speed up its emissions reduction and dedicate a large share of post-coronavirus economic recovery money to the Green Deal’s objectives. But, as perhaps the most obvious global public good, climate change mitigation fundamentally requires global cooperation. Regulators and markets need to work together to price carbon, finance green investments and phase out brown assets. And all that must be done while ensuring that this transition is fair, both between and within countries, so that the burden of adjustment is borne not just by a few, but is proportional to everyone’s means.

The big sustainability push will no doubt generate incentives for consumers and investors to move into greener behaviours. But is that enough? Can price incentives be enough to generate behavioural changes? Or, do we need drastic changes in our lifestyles so that we can meet our ambitions by 2050?

Indeed, in the same survey that found support for climate action, almost all (93%) of respondents said they appreciated that lifestyles need to be adjusted and that they had already “taken at least one specific action to fight climate change”. This adjustment came mostly in the form of recycling or cutting down consumption of disposable items. But can recycling plastic or eliminating the use of drinking straws, be the sum total of how our lifestyles need to adapt?

Efforts to promote necessary lifestyle change in the US, EU, Canada and Australia have arguably so far focused on actions that achieve rather minimal emissions savings in terms of individual carbon footprint. Things like upgrading light bulbs or recycling, which rank relatively low in terms of impact. High impact actions require much more substantive behavioural changes.

By far the highest impact, by a factor of almost 30 compared to the second highest, can be achieved by having fewer children. The developed world may in fact be aging, but according to the Pew Research Center, the world population will continue to grow until the end of the century before it flattens. China has just introduced a third-child policy to deal with its aging problem. But irrespective of where each nation is in terms of population growth, young couples rarely take family-planning decisions based on climate-mitigation considerations.

Reducing the use of cars, or at the very least switching to energy efficient cars, can make a tangible difference. The most impactful action after having fewer children is abandoning cars altogether. Achieving this at any meaningful scale requires rethinking infrastructure, from public transport networks to how and where to build residential areas. Not an easy task. But any policy that encourages switching to more efficient or electric cars can deliver tangible emissions savings. Importantly, a gradual change may help individuals adapt their lifestyle.

Other actions that deliver high gains in terms of personal carbon-footprint reductions are avoiding long-haul flights, buying green energy and switching to a plant-based diet. Not all are as easy to incentivise or require the same effort in terms of lifestyle change. Consider diet. In Europe, 10% of the population consider themselves vegetarians. But we also see that 50% of European consumers are actively reducing their meat consumption, although admittedly also for health reasons. Can diet change be done at sufficient scale to drive the necessary sustainability?

In the middle-impact category is recycling, a very popular action widely applied. But also middle-impact are actions such as washing clothes in colder water and air-drying clothes. If you have a family and live in a Northern European country that would mean a very radical lifestyle change!

How ready are we to not only respond to price incentives given by the government, but also to radically change our lifestyles in any of the above ways, to tackle the gravest challenge ahead of us? While technology also adjusts, this is a question we should all answer.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to [email protected].

Read article More by this author
 

External Publication

Global Economic Resilience: Building Forward Better

A roadmap for systemic economic reform calling for step-change in global economic governance to increase resilience and build forward better from economic shocks, prepared for the G7 Advisory Panel on Economic Resilience.

By: Thomas Wieser Topic: Global economy and trade, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 14, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Oct
20
13:00

Monetary policy in the time of climate change

How does climate change influence monetary policy in the eurozone? What potential monetary policy measures should be taken up to address climate risks?

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Cornelia Holthausen and Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Banking and capital markets Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Oct
21
14:00

The contribution of hydrogen to European decarbonisation

What role will hydrogen play in Europe's decarbonisation?

Speakers: Alison Conboy, Andrea Pisano and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Oct
28
14:00

Can climate change be tackled without ditching economic growth?

What will be necessary to achieve climate goals and keep growing?

Speakers: Francesco Starace, Simone Tagliapietra and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article
 

Opinion

Xi’s pledge on financing coal plants overseas misses point

China’s domestic installation of coal-fired power plants continues at great pace.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global economy and trade, Green economy Date: October 7, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

The only quick-fix to Europe’s energy price crisis is saving energy

The only thing Europe can quickly do to prevent a potentially difficult winter is to actively promote energy conservation in both the residential and industrial sectors.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Date: October 7, 2021
Read article
 

Opinion

Will China use climate change as a bargaining chip?

Beijing shows signs of changing tactics ahead of the COP26 conference.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global economy and trade, Green economy Date: October 6, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

What is the link between biodiversity loss and financial instability?

Biodiversity loss impacts financial stability. How big is the risk of biodiversity loss for financial institutions?

Speakers: Sylvie Goulard, Romain Svartzman, Guntram B. Wolff and Michael Wilkins Topic: Banking and capital markets Date: October 5, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Letter: The lesson Europe should learn from the gas crisis

Europe’s gas supply security could more effectively be safeguarded by ensuring that unused alternatives are maintained.

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Date: October 5, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

A green fiscal pact

How can the European Union increase green public investment while consolidating budget deficits?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: September 29, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Opinion

Can climate change be tackled without ditching economic growth?

The ultimate answer to the question on whether climate change can be tackled without ditching economic growth depends on our willingness to step up climate action massively.

By: Klaas Lenaerts, Simone Tagliapietra and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy Date: September 27, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

External Publication

Winners and losers of energy and climate policy – How can the costs be redistributed?

Who should bear more and who less of the burden achieving climate policy goals?

By: Gustav Fredriksson and Georg Zachmann Topic: Green economy Date: September 24, 2021
Load more posts