This week the IPCC released its latest climate report. They reported that climate change is now “affecting every inhabited region across the globe”. It was a sobering reality check on global warming. The report warns that we will breach key temperature targets said in the Paris climate agreement in 2015 within two decades if transformational change and urgent emissions cuts do not happen urgently. The landmark study also warns that extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding are becoming increasingly common. The situation has been called a 'code red for humanity'. We spoke to one PhD student from the University of Oxford to hear what they had to say on the climate emergency.
The Importance of Changing Consumer Behaviour around Sustainability
The world’s wealthiest 1% produce double the emissions of the poorest 50% combined (UN, 2020), while 70% of global emissions are caused by the richest 20% (Anderson K, 2020). It has been well established that the poorest in the world will suffer the most from the consequences of climate change, whilst bearing the least responsibility for causing it. The overconsumption rife in the developed world – frequent flying, larger houses, bigger cars, meat-rich diets, fast fashion, latest products etc. – cannot continue if there is to be any hope of meeting emissions targets and preventing climate disaster.
However, these facts also show the scale of the opportunity that lies in individual behaviour change in the developed world. If the world’s richest 10% reduced their emissions in line with the footprint of the average European (hardly an extreme proposition) we would immediately cut a staggering ⅓ of global emissions (Anderson K, 2020). Without building any new complex technologies, major infrastructure, or implementing any major policies, we can significantly reduce emissions by simply changing our habits.
Beyond the obvious (and hugely important) flying less, recycling, and eating less meat, there are many other major, often unappreciated, opportunities. There’s a tendency to focus on turning lights off, yet, turning down the heating slightly has a much greater impact. Wasting less food, using public transport and cycling more, repairing and keeping products for longer, and buying second-hand items are all impactful behaviours in reducing emissions. It also goes beyond emissions and climate change; the environmental impact of single-use plastics is well documented, although it is always worth mentioning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of plastic and trash in the Pacific twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France. Buying and using less plastic is a no-brainer.
It is also critical to recognise the timescale: we need to reach net zero emissions by 2050, less than 30 years away. New technologies cannot save us fast enough, as they have an inherent limited rate of deployment – it takes a significant amount of time to move any invention from the lab to the real world and then deploy it at the necessary scale. This techno-optimism is often a dangerous excuse to delay necessary action now, and it is used by governments, companies and individuals alike. Collective individual action is therefore all the more important, because it can make a big difference right here, right now.
Nonetheless, this does not mean all responsibility lies with the individual. In fact, the primary responsibility of mitigating climate change lies with governments and corporations as they hold concentrated power. One of the most important actions of any individual is holding them to account and demanding them to change. But this should not excuse inaction from us individuals in our daily lives. To have any chance of avoiding climate disaster we need both systemic and individual change, and both are inextricably linked. Too often we underestimate the power that lies in our hands, when individual actions and choices become collective.
PhD student, University of Oxford, Department of Materials