How can people help save the planet from the climate crisis?

A major new European study co-authored by a University of Sussex Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Sussex Energy Group, has found that individuals have as big a role to play in tackling climate change as major corporations, but only if they can be encouraged to make significant lifestyle changes by effective government policy.

The study notes that voluntary lifestyle choices by well-meaning individuals would only achieve around half the required emission reductions needed to hit the 1.5 C Paris Agreement goal. However, the authors suggest that Paris targets could be achieved if voluntary choices were combined with policies that target behavioural change, particularly around eating meat and using fewer cars and airplanes.

The study’s authors explain that the international climate policy debate has so far focused mainly on technology and economic incentives, ranking behaviour change to a lesser priority of a voluntary add-on. This is despite the fact behavioural change has the potential for far greater emission reductions than the political pledges made under the Paris Accord.

Academic’s investigated the preferences for reducing household emissions, responsible for about 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It involved hundreds of families in four European cities using a specially-designed simulation tool to indicate carbon and money savings from 65 lifestyle choices combined with in-depth surveys with household members.

It found public support for policy initiatives that encouraged more sustainable practices around food production, but resistance to initiatives that restricted personal mobility and transport options. One of the most surprising findings found within the study was that the areas where greatest lifestyle changes were required and the largest carbon footprints produced, such as aviation and changes to diet, had received the lowest policy attention to date.

Ghislain Dubois, Lead author and founder of the TEC Conseil in France, said “Our research proves that if supported by adequate policies, households can have a decisive contribution to the Paris agreement objectives. This is largely ignored by current climate policies and negotiations, which rely only on macro-economics and technology. We should dare envisaging and researching taboos like consumption reduction or sobriety. When you consider the impacts on CO2 emissions, but also on households’ budgets and the potential co-benefits, it is worth it.”

Professor Benjamin Sovacool added “Our study underscores the contradictions we all have in balancing climate change with other priorities. We want to fight climate change, but stick to eating meat and driving our cars. There are certain changes we can make voluntarily but beyond that we need policy to step in.”

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