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Not All Changes Proposed for Climate Mitigation are for the Better

Changes in lifestyle can minimize greenhouse gas emissions and help safeguard nature. Although some actions hold huge promise, some are not as effective as thought and may even need more land and water such as turning to renewable energy.

Not all changes proposed in the name of climate mitigation are for the better. (Image credit: Shutterstock, NTB Scanpix)

There is a need to make a change in lifestyle in order to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. According to a study by NTNU and others, however, not all changes put forward with a view to bringing down climate change are for the better.

The most promising solutions involve reducing motorized transport, switching to a more shared economy, saving energy, using fewer household chemicals and plastics, reducing food waste or food surpluses, and increasing the lifetime of clothing and other durable goods. These measures assume that we shift our focus from infinite economic growth to building a more sustainable society and achieving environmental goals.

Gibran Vita, Researcher, NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program and University of Kassel, Germany

Risky Tactics

First, the strategies that do not meet or could even make things worse, at least in some regions, are discussed.

  • Virtually, shifting to more renewable electricity may decrease our carbon footprint by almost 3%, but simultaneously, land use could increase by over 3%, which is most certainly evident to anyone who has been following the debate on wind turbines in wasteland regions. These factors have to be evaluated against one another.

As detailed in the spring UN report by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), variations in land and sea use present the greatest risk to the world’s species, more than direct exploitation of organisms, where climate change is in the third place.

  • Improving the use of renewable fuels is another hazardous strategy. Although it has the capability to minimize carbon emissions by up to 12%, a measure such as this would also increase land use and water consumption by 5%–6%. This must probably be taken into account in the debate on hydrogen and electric cars.
  • Complete repair and renovation of the current building stock might facilitate energy efficiency but also, perhaps rather shockingly, increase land use by more than 10%. The materials must be sourced from elsewhere.

In order to minimize the influence of Europeans on the environment, it is necessary to know what people are doing.

Rich Countries: Going for Growth or Enough?

Experts in consumption and how a variety of options impact greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, land use, and toxicity were part of a research team that investigated two different, important paths, with many sub-scenarios, that can be taken by the world.

Green consumption or less consumption? Diverse beliefs exist even among people who are aware that the climate crisis is real and caused by humans. These include the following:

  • Green growth: Some people think that “green growth” can be realized. They are likely to think that it is adequate to consume products that pollute less and to take up more eco-friendly technologies such as renewable energy, while simultaneously producing renewable materials. In addition, green growth involves shifting to a circular economy where raw material use, energy consumption, and emissions are reduced—and waste is discarded as little as possible.
  • Enough is enough: Other people believe that it is essential to take more extreme steps and assume that those in the most affluent areas of the world should be trained to live with just enough to sustain the standard of living at present rather than engaging in continual growth. This decision implies that people work less and have more time, while also safeguarding the quality of life with strong welfare systems.

300 Proposals Analyzed

Around 200 people with experiences in academia, business, agencies, and other sectors joined hands to create proposals for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. The working teams produced over 300 visions for change.

Gibran Vita and his team, in turn, categorized the proposals into 36 different cases, 17 of them for green growth, and 19 of sufficiency, considering consumption is restricted to a reasonable level in the most affluent parts of the world.

Although the scenarios that assume no increased consumption would be the most effective, the measures proposed in them are less popular than green consumption, since they’re at odds with today’s view that consumption equates to quality of life.

Gibran Vita, Researcher, NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program and University of Kassel, Germany

The effects of different measures naturally change significantly.

Food, Transportation, and Reuse

We found that switching to plant-based foods, less motorized transport and energy-efficient houses can reduce climate impact in Europe by 10% or more,” stated Vita.

A large-scale transformation to plant-based foods can minimize the carbon footprint by up to 15%. Discarding less food could achieve an extra 5% reduction in carbon and up to 16% less water.

A huge shift to walking and cycling could automatically compensate European greenhouse gas emissions by up to 26% and minimize the pressure on land and water resources by up to 4%.

But if you walk or bike daily and then reward yourself with a plane flight, you could still end up with a bigger footprint than today.

Gibran Vita, Researcher, NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program and University of Kassel, Germany

Refurbishing and purchasing fewer household electronics could minimize emissions and consumption by up to 6%.

Repairing and recycling clothing would minimize consumption by over 2%. However, transition to plant-based textiles would account for very little, if anything. A considerable difference is made only by lowering fashion consumption.

People can Share More

The impacts of turning to a more local economy—where several tasks are taken care of cooperatively in the regional area—differ significantly based on how this is done. The effect can thus vary from a 3% to 23% decrease in a community’s climate footprint.

If fewer houses are constructed, more people will choose to live together, or existing units will be divided into smaller ones, thus Europe’s carbon footprint could reduce by around 1.8% and the pressure on rural areas by around 3.5%. Using natural building materials possibly do not have any considerable impact.

Vita remarks that some of the measures may have impacts in other parts of the world apart from Europe. Due to an elevated globalized economy, decreased consumption can mean less damage in the manufacturing countries.

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