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How individuals can save a warming planet

Joyashree Roy writes: The right choice matters, but it must be enabled and supported by larger, systemic changes

The IPCC report shows that individuals with high socioeconomic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions, as citizens, investors, consumers, role models, and professionals.

A paradigm shift in the way we think about climate action has been reported for the first time in the recent IPCC report through a chapter on “demand, services and social aspects of mitigation”. This puts people and their well-being at the centre of climate change mitigation. The messages are from a global perspective but have relevance to the national context of every country.

The report shows how, through comprehensive demand-side strategies, carbon dioxide and non-carbon GHG emissions globally can be reduced by 40–70 per cent compared to the 2050 emissions projection. What this implies is that the burden on supply-side mitigation can be reduced by 40-70 per cent. This can be achieved through reduced food waste, following sustainable healthy dietary choices that acknowledge nutritional needs, adaptive heating and cooling choices for thermal comfort, climate-friendly dressing culture, integration of renewable energy in buildings, shifting to electric light-duty vehicles, and to walking, cycling, shared and public transit, sustainable consumption by intensive use of longer-lived repairable products, compact city design and efficient floor area use of buildings.

The IPCC report also shows that individuals with high socioeconomic status contribute disproportionately to emissions and have the highest potential for emissions reductions, as citizens, investors, consumers, role models, and professionals. Demand-side mitigation potential differs between and within regions, and some regions and populations require additional energy, capacity, and resources for human well-being. The lowest 25 per cent of the population faces shortfalls in housing, mobility and nutrition. Addressing inequality and reducing many forms of status-related consumption (consumption of goods and services for social prestige and not necessarily well-being) and focusing on well-being supports climate change mitigation efforts.

Of the 60 actions assessed in this report, on an individual level, the biggest contribution comes from walking and cycling wherever possible and using electricity-powered transport. To be effective, these shifts will need to be supported by systemic changes in some areas — for example, land use and urban planning policies to avoid urban sprawl, support for green spaces, reallocation of street spaces for walking and physical exercise, investment in public transport and infrastructure design for active and electric vehicles. Many services can be improved while reducing energy demand. Electrification and shifts to public transport also bring benefits in terms of enhancing health, employment, and equality.

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Individual choice alone can make only a modest contribution to reducing GHG emissions and this is insufficient unless it is linked to structural and cultural changes that make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles. Our assessment shows that if people get access to appropriate infrastructure and technology and are facilitated with policy support and information to make the right choices, then this mitigation potential can be realised through their actions. It provides a rich evidence base to show that a better life is possible for those with drastically lower GHG emissions. It shows that, so far, climate action has ignored what people need, demand, and aspire for and, instead, focused on what needs to be supplied to people. By assessing social science literature, we could clearly show in this report that people aspire for a healthy life, food for daily nutrition, a comfortable home, and transportation system, thermal comfort, communication, and participation in decision-making processes.

By providing user-level access to more efficient energy conversion technologies, the need for primary energy can be reduced by 45 per cent by 2050, compared to 2020. Lifestyle changes require targeted policy support and investment in appropriate infrastructure, and various user-centric technologies. Demand-side changes cannot deliver the net-zero goal on their own. But this requires investment in and transformation across every sector, along with policies and incentives that encourage people to make low-carbon choices in all aspects of their lives. In our cities, where more than half the world’s population lives, packages of policies that design urban-scale changes that cascade across sectors can achieve greater emissions reductions than the sum of individual actions alone.

Lifestyle changes are so important because demand-side potential can partially be tapped in the short-term. This makes it an important category for immediate action, when energy prices are high and energy security is a critical issue. There is huge untapped potential in the near term through changes across transport, industry, buildings, and food that will take away the supply-side uncertainties and make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles and, at the same time, improve well-being.


The demand for fossil fuels is projected to reduce. The report is clear: To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, coal use without carbon capture and storage would have to fall by about three quarters by 2030, although the world will continue to use oil and gas at least until the mid-century. The use of coal globally would have to fall by about 90 per cent by 2050, and gas and oil would need to decline by anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent or more to give us a chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius with no or limited overshoot. Further reductions would be required in gas and oil by 2100.

Ultimately, it is for the IPCC to provide the evidence and for policymakers, investors, and all other decision-makers to decide what needs to be done based on national contexts.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 6, 2022 under the title ‘Choice is yours’. The writer is the coordinating lead author, Chapter 5, IPCC WGIII Sixth Assessment Report

First published on: 06-04-2022 at 04:00:25 am
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