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‘Polluter Elite’ Must Rein in Lifestyles to Help Drive Down Emissions

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the globe, plenty of thinkers are devoting their time to what comes next. The hopeful argue for an effort to Build Back Better. The less hopeful doubt that will be easy, or perhaps even possible, and not necessarily because of the pandemic itself. The pragmatists say the future can be different, if humans can achieve radical change in themselves and their lives.

They start from where we are and try to plot a way through to where we want to be. One of these is a UK think tank, the  Cambridge Sustainability Commission on behaviour change and the climate crisis, whose report is published by the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA), Climate News Network reports.

The RTA argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles…to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C,” the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The Commission’s report notes that some of us need to change our behaviour more than others. “Globally, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest half is responsible for less than 10%,” it says.

“The lifestyle emissions of the richest in society are actually increasing,” the report adds. “Relying on conscientious individuals to ‘do their bit’ will never be enough to put society on a sustainable pathway without substantial shifts in the behaviour of the polluter elite.”

The report looks beyond the problem of taming the polluter elite, identifying several other “behaviour hotspots”. One, described as high-impact behaviours and ways of life, not very surprisingly lists “car and plane mobility, the consumption of meat and dairy, and the heating of residential homes”.

Some readers, though, may gulp to see a fourth candidate suggested for the list—the need for a 25% reduction in average personal living space to stay below the stricter emissions limit adopted by the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C.

How should we measure lifestyle sustainability? The Cambridge report says that as “global meat production (which roughly mirrors consumption) has fallen for the past two years (FAO, 2020), strategies to reduce meat consumption could accelerate the move away from meat-heavy diets and food production, acting as a social tipping point.”

Earlier, it defines these as small, quantitative changes which “lead to a qualitatively different state of the social system”, and are therefore to be welcomed.

Eager for Change

There are certainly grounds in the report for thinking that more Britons are ready to change the way they behave than to stay the way they are.

The authors report a substantial appetite in the United Kingdom for post-pandemic behavioural change, according to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) RESET enquiry, led by Caroline Lucas, MP. A sample of more than 57,000 people determined that:

• 66% of UK adults want the government to prioritize the health and well-being of citizens over GDP growth;

• 66% of the public think the government should intervene to make society fairer;

• 60% support a shorter working week;

• 63% support a jobs guarantee;

• 57% support some form of universal basic income;

• 65% support rent caps.

But these changes may be a long way from all that’s needed. Chapter 5 of the Cambridge report, Future Intervention Points, starts with a warning: “As things stand under a business-as-usual scenario, we are headed towards 3-4°C of warming by the end of the century, with catastrophic consequences for humanity and the ecosystems upon which we depend.” – Adapted from a longer post on Climate News Network