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Environment

5 ways scientists say lifestyles must change to save the planet

Over-consumption in rich countries will have to fall to stay within safe limits of global heating, the IPCC said. Here’s what needs to change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published a – let’s say ‘bumper’ – report outlining the urgent actions the world must take immediately to mitigate catastrophic global warming. 

It’s not the shortest document ever produced, coming in at around 2,000 pages. But it has been approved by scientists from 195 countries and is full of information and recommendations on how world governments can act now to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Essentially, the report warns the planet now faces a “now or never” chance to turn our fortunes around and avoid the very worst impacts of climate change. 

One area the report focuses heavily on is “demand side reduction”, meaning the ways in which demand for certain products or services can be reduced to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

It estimates that bringing down this demand across all sectors could provide a 40 to 70 per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

But this is easier said than done. Achieving a reduction in demand and consumption will require changes across entire societies, from what we eat to how we travel and the places that we live. Here’s a breakdown of what the world’s top scientists have said must change. 

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Over-consumption 

The problem with current lifestyles in wealthier, developed nations is that individuals are simply consuming too much, putting strain on the planet’s resources.

The richest are responsible for an enormous portion of greenhouse gases worldwide, with the IPCC report outlining the wealthiest 10 per cent of people contribute around 36 to 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

People in wealthier countries also consume far more than those in emerging economies

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For example, the lifestyle consumption emissions of the poorest and middle-income people in emerging economies are between five to 50 times lower than people with equivalent income in high-income countries.

Ultimately, this means consumption patterns of the very wealthiest must plummet.

The IPCC report authors say in addition to consumption falling, the richest people in the world must become “role models” of low-carbon lifestyles, investing in low-carbon businesses, and advocating for stringent climate policies.

“Status consumption” must also be tackled, the IPCC said – that is, attitudes that view over-consumption as aspirational. 

Decreasing social inequality will also be essential for tackling climate change, with social equity reinforcing “capacity and motivation for mitigating climate change”, the report said. 

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Dietary shifts 

Meat and dairy products are huge drivers of the climate crisis thanks to intensive agriculture practices which drive up both carbon and methane emissions.

Meat and dairy also contribute to global deforestation problems because of the land-clearing required to rear cattle for consumption.

In recent years, a shift towards “westernised” diets – high in meat and dairy products – has occurred in some low and middle income countries such as Brazil and India, meaning emissions from this sector are increasing. 

As such, the IPCC has recommended a shift towards “sustainable healthy diets”, which it defines as diets that “promote all dimensions of individuals” health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable”.

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So what should you be eating? The IPCC says diets should feature “plant-based foods such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds”, while any animal products should be sustainably sourced.

This means that diets will have to shift towards more plant-based foods, reducing global consumption of meat and dairy. 

Food waste must also be slashed to avoid methane emissions produced when it breaks down, the report states.

Reducing demand for meat and dairy could also have positive impacts in other ways, improving health and freeing up land for other measures to help combat climate change like growing trees.

Travel

The way we travel is also going to have to change, the IPCC said, with a shift away from high-carbon modes of transport like diesel and fuel cars towards electric vehicles, public transport and walking or cycling. 

Sustainable fuels for cars, sustainable biofuels for planes and hydrogen could help lower emissions in hard-to-abate sectors such as shipping and aviation, the report said. 

“Teleworking and telecommuting”, meaning working from home, can also help reduce emissions in the transport sector, the report said, by cutting out unnecessary journeys. 

It added that these changes will again have co-benefits, including “air quality improvements, health benefits, equitable access to transportation services, reduced congestion, and reduced material demand”.

Making this shift will require a change in consumer behaviour as well as investment from governments.

“Combinations of systemic changes including, teleworking, digitalisation, dematerialisation, supply chain management, and smart and shared mobility may reduce demand for passenger and freight services across land, air, and sea,” the report said.

Buildings 

Poorly-insulated buildings and heating systems are key drivers of the climate crisis – so changing the places we live will be another essential component of reducing our impact on the planet, the IPCC report said. 

Progress in this area has been hindered by “low ambition” on retrofitting buildings. This is especially true in the UK, which has some of the most poorly-insulated housing stock in Europe.

The IPCC report said the buildings of the future should be adaptable to avoid the possibility of demolition and waste in the future, as well as being built with low-carbon materials. 

Homes must be well-insulated as well as having cooling measures to prevent overheating, meaning many buildings will have to be retrofitted.

As well as this, homes will have to switch to low-carbon heating systems such as “small wind turbines, solar thermal collectors, and biomass boilers”, the report said.

Demand for energy should also be reduced, with IPCC scientists recommending the “provision of energy related information, advice and feedback to promote energy saving behaviour.”

Buying products 

We need to stop buying so much stuff, and when we do have to, the experts say it should be sustainable – calling for durability and reusability of products to be improved.

To facilitate this change, the report recommended the establishment of networks for recycling, repurposing, manufacturing and reuse of materials like glass and plastics, as well as introducing emissions labelling to help consumers make more sustainable choices. 

When it comes to industries making products, the report says businesses should seek out low-carbon materials to reduce the impacts of manufacturing. 

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