The polluting elite: Research spotlights why the climate needs ‘radical’ lifestyle changes

From banning private jets and yachts to cutting back on meat-eating, researchers this month urged the world’s major economies to adopt “radical” policies to limit the impact of luxury lifestyles on global warming – even if they prove unpopular.

Today’s “lifestyle” carbon footprints in the 20 largest economies are out of line with an internationally agreed goal to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times, says a new study by the Berlin-based Hot or Cool Institute.

Individual behavior changes alone will not be sufficient without a major shift in government policies to push citizens to lead greener lifestyles, the researchers said.

The U.N. climate science panel warned in August that global heating is dangerously close to spiraling out of control and will bring climate disruption globally for decades to come.

Here is a look at citizens’ carbon footprints in the world’s leading economies and what can governments do to shrink them:

How are lifestyle choices making global warming worse?

There are “massive gaps” between current per-capita carbon footprints and the 1.5C warming ceiling, according to the research by the Hot or Cool Institute, based on an analysis of half of the G20 group of countries.

All those analyzed – Canada, Finland, Britain, Japan, China, South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, India and Indonesia – exceed the lifestyle carbon footprints for 2050 that would allow the 1.5C goal to be met.

Report lead author Lewis Akenji said discussing changes in lifestyles “is a hot-potato issue to policy makers who are afraid to touch consumption or the lifestyles of voters”.

But without addressing the way the wealthy live, it will not be possible to curb climate change, he added.

The key question, he said, is “how do we distribute the remaining and shrinking carbon budget in a fair manner that allows everyone equitable opportunities for a life of dignity?”.

Which lifestyle choices have the biggest impacts?

Food, housing and personal transport have the largest impact on climate change – representing about four-fifths of total lifestyle carbon footprints, compared to other areas like goods, leisure and services, according to the research.

But individual behavior shifts alone will not be enough to transition to a low-carbon society, with researchers arguing those must happen alongside broader system change.

“Behavior change can only do so much without a full turnaround from our pro-growth politics, financial and economic models towards a more holistic wellbeing economy,” said   Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome, a Swiss non-profit.

The research calls for a “rapid and radical” reduction in carbon footprints in these countries, to keep the 1.5C warming goal within reach.

What changes need to happen?

Governments must begin putting in place measures to target “harmful” lifestyle options, say researchers, either by severely restricting or banning high-carbon consumer habits like fossil-fueled private jets, luxury yachts and excessive meat-eating.

Customer loyalty programs encouraging frequent flying and stays in wasteful hotels should be ended too, they say.

Other policies governments should consider include limiting the size of homes or supporting co-housing, capping the use of public space for roads and car parks, and setting higher minimum efficiency standards for appliances.

Are lifestyle impacts similar across major economies?

There are “deep inequalities” in lifestyle-linked greenhouse gas emissions among the world’s major economies, the report finds.

For example, a resident of Canada – which has the highest per-capita emissions among the 10 countries analyed – has on average lifestyle footprint more than six times bigger than someone in Indonesia.

“The emissions share of the top 1% highest-income earners is greater than the total emissions of the bottom 50% combined, and may be twice as high, according to some estimates,” the report notes.

To address this disparity, it recommends that governments adopt the idea of a “fair consumption space” that would allow the remaining carbon budget to be distributed in a fair manner.

Lifestyle carbon footprints need to be reduced by 91-95% by 2050 in high-income countries, compared with 76% in lower-middle income countries, according to the analysis.