Living below 1.5°C: A guide for European citizens, businesses, and policymakers

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The 2015 Paris Agreement committed 196 parties to limiting global warming to below 2°C—and preferably to 1.5°C—compared to pre-industrial levels. Yet limited progress on climate change erodes trust in these ambitions and leaves the world in the grip of a worsening climate crisis. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which provides policymakers with scientific assessments on climate change and potential future risks, climate change has caused irreversible damage to the environment.

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The reality is that there is now only a shrinking and finite global carbon budget left for living below the 1.5°C threshold

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Meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement and avoiding the most dire consequences of climate change will require a range of complementary changes. Society, and in particular future generations, will need to see changes in lifestyles, especially in high-consuming societies. Huge variations in lifestyle greenhouse gas emissions globally (and even within countries themselves) and the widening gap between rich and poor only add to the challenge.

While lifestyle changes are important for a positive climate impact, they are enabled and constrained by social norms and the physical environment or infrastructure, as described in the IPCC report on mitigation. This means that lifestyle changes need to be flanked by systemic changes in policies, infrastructure, and businesses.

As Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of the latest IPCC report on mitigation stated: “Having the right policies, infrastructure, and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40%-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

A recent report by the experts at Hot or Cool offers just one of many potential approaches: using the concept of a fair consumption space as the guiding principle for greater sustainability and the move to a low-carbon society. This space would respect planetary boundaries and is one that all can share together more equitably.

What are our planetary boundaries?

The idea of living within our planetary boundaries is a concept created by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It suggests a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can develop and thrive for generations to come. Unfortunately, we have passed several of these boundaries already.

Visions of a more sustainable future: from safe spaces to bathtubs

The fair consumption space is just one potential way forward. Other concepts include:

  • The safe operating space concept, building on the idea that the impact of human activities on Earth has reached a point where global environmental change could happen suddenly.
  • The carbon budget concept, which suggests that the remaining budget of carbon that the atmosphere can accept is represented as a bathtub—one that is currently overflowing. The fair consumption space is a development of this, introducing the idea that any distribution of the remaining carbon budget needs to be done equitably.

About this guide

This guide looks at ways that citizens, businesses, and policymakers can decrease their own carbon footprints and achieve their climate goals as they attempt to allocate the remaining carbon allowance in the fairest way.

These lifestyle changes—in high-impact areas from food and personal transport to consumer goods, leisure, or housing—will contribute to keeping within the 1.5°C aspirational target of the Paris Agreement

Achieving climate goals requires collective action

Many indicators—from the recent IPCC reports to the global stock takes that occur every five years at each UN Climate Change Conference—show that we are in the grip of a climate emergency.

The last decade experienced the highest emissions ever while climate impacts increased—everything from floods to droughts and enhanced biodiversity loss. These alarming facts about the climate emergency become ever more urgent.

To address this challenge, governments, businesses, and citizens must contribute with concrete changes. To meet the targets and actions of the Paris Agreement (and those of individual member states), governments need societies behind them. Everyone, from citizens to companies and local governments, must be part of the solution. But what does it mean for individuals, companies, and governments to contribute to complying with 1.5°C? This is a tricky question, and yet it is the starting point for new solutions, interesting approaches, and meaningful action.

How do we translate the 1.5°C target into changes in individual lifestyles, organizational business models, and government policymaking?

This guide aims to find and share the best ideas for the changes that everyone can make.

What can citizens do?

The COVID-19 pandemic was an indication of the potential impact on society of a future climate crisis. Many citizens endured lockdowns, food shortages, and greater economic and social instability. Since then, the Russia-Ukraine war created further food and energy crises with a deep social impact.

Yet runaway temperature rises would result in a far larger and longer-term crisis than COVID-19 or the Russia-Ukraine war. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and health professionals worldwide are already responding to the health harms caused by this unfolding crisis. The IPCC concluded that to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. With increasing inequality among and within countries and between races and genders, the potential for an unplanned and chaotic transition to a more sustainable future is tremendous. The need for an orderly transition is urgent. How can society begin to make the changes needed to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C ?

Moving to a 1.5°C lifestyle

Achieving the 1.5°C climate goal will require a change of lifestyles for the global population and especially for people in countries with a high carbon footprint. That doesn’t just cover consumption and behavior; it is also about relationships and shared resources. Lifestyle changes can thus positively impact well-being and at the same time reduce the carbon footprint.

There are current inequalities of income between countries: some societies over-consume, while others under-consume.

The relative impact of changes to living a 1.5°C lifestyle will vary across high, upper-middle, and lower-middle-income countries.

Achieving the climate goal will require policymakers to consider how to allocate the remaining carbon budget in an equal way.

How can someone make the biggest impact on their carbon footprint?

A recently published report from Hot or Cool finds that for most individuals, the areas where everyone can make the biggest impact on their carbon footprint are food, housing, personal transport, goods, leisure, and services.

In particular, the lifestyle changes in three of these areas—food, housing, and personal transport—have the largest impact on total lifestyle carbon footprints.

There is no one-size-fits-all way of cutting carbon footprints. Every country has its own challenges and opportunities for citizens to contribute. What an individual can do depends on the country they live in, so actions will be tailored accordingly.

Here are some of the most impactful practical actions that citizens can take to reduce their carbon footprint:

1. Lower your meat consumption.

One of the most impactful changes you can make is to lower your meat consumption. Either cut the amount of meat you consume or go vegetarian or vegan.

Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet can make a big impact on an individual’s carbon footprint with an added health benefit.

Such a change will have varying levels of impact depending on the country you live in. For example, citizens in Argentina could make a dramatic impact on their carbon footprint by cutting meat consumption, as that country’s meat industry is one of the highest contributors to emissions.

Someone living in India, however, would make less of an impact by cutting out meat, as it is already a country with low meat consumption and associated emissions. Other steps to reducing the environmental impact of your food include purchasing organic products where possible. If you live in a country that currently has little or no organic farming, then consider starting your own organic food cooperative to support local organic farmers.

2. Reduce your dependence on fossil fuels.

Reducing or cutting out the amount of energy you use that comes from fossil fuels is possible, even in a country that is heavily dependent on them.

In a country such as Iceland or Sweden, where fossil fuel use is already low, the impact of reducing your usage will be minimal. However, some countries are highly dependent on fossil fuels—from those fully dependent such as Oman or Kuwait to others that are highly dependent, such as Poland and the Netherlands, which use a huge amount of gas to heat homes.

Citizens can cut their overall energy consumption, for example, through greater energy efficiency in their homes.

Investing in energy efficiency improvements to your home to cut your footprint might not feel like an affordable option for every citizen, particularly with current high-energy costs.

Yet, many institutions now provide increasing amounts of social support to citizens. In Europe, EU member states introduced financial support schemes to address the impacts of high energy prices, as well as free financial or technical support for energy efficiency renovation projects in homes.

Another option is to participate in or form a renewable energy cooperative. This is a decentralized initiative formed by citizens to meet their own local energy priorities. There are over 1,900 such cooperatives represented by European federation REScoop and citizen interest in these initiatives continues to grow across Europe.

Alternatively, platforms such as Energy Shift also make it easy to invest in local solar projects—and earn passive income from them too.

Switching energy suppliers to one that uses renewable energy is also a step that many individuals can take. In Belgium, for example, citizens can purchase their energy from Bolt, a sustainable energy platform that directly links energy consumers with local energy suppliers. It’s a great way to connect with and support local renewable energy suppliers. Customers can choose providers—for example, they might want to get their energy directly from Bolt suppliers Lena and Louis, who run their own farm near Antwerp.

3. Change how you travel.

Regardless of the levels of income in your country, changes to the way you use transport will deliver the biggest potential impact on your carbon footprint.

Many of the ways to do this are obvious—use your car less or switch to an electric vehicle if possible. Use a bike or an e-bike for short trips and use public transport when you can.

Making these changes isn’t always easy or possible for citizens experiencing poverty in some countries. For example, you may not be able to afford to move to a home that is closer to your workplace to cut your commuting time. Even for citizens of higher-income countries such as Canada, a high national dependence on fossil fuels and long traveling distances makes it hard to change travel habits to cut emissions.

In these situations, national and local governments can also make these options easier by backing radical shifts such as providing free public transport, for example.

Key takeaways

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What can businesses do?

The world is increasingly interconnected. The lifestyle choices made by individual citizens don't occur in isolation. The wider macroeconomic context can accelerate or suppress the impact that choices have on the climate.

Individual behavior change can only achieve so much.

Everyone is locked into systems that damage the planet. At present, society is not paying a premium for that damage. For example, food that is made with pesticides that harm the planet is cheaper than organic foods that don’t. Polluters don’t pay for the damage done to natural assets that belong to everyone.

That means businesses can play an important role in the transition to a more sustainable future. They need to move to 1.5°C-compliant business models. Systemic, as well as individual change, is essential.

100 companies account for 71% of global GHG emissions (Climate Accountability Institute)

What changes can businesses make to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5°C?

A consumer society drives contributions made by individuals. Businesses influence lifestyle choices through advertising, products, and services.

As a result of policies and decisions—and driven by the market’s continual urge to grow—the world is flooded with products and services that contribute to climate change.

Here are some potential ways that businesses can help reduce carbon emissions:

1. Businesses can choice edit the products and services they provide.

The most powerful tool available to businesses that want to contribute to the fair consumption space is choice editing.

Consumers make choices based on availability. Logically, individuals cannot buy, consume, or use an inaccessible product or service. That availability is based on the decisions that manufacturers, service providers, retailers, and even policymakers take.

Choice editing means that businesses filter out options that contribute to climate change across a range of products and services.

Most businesses already choice edit. These choices are often based on the criteria of profitability, available technology, or the demands of a specific market. There is a compelling argument for using this practice to influence consumer behavior, guiding individuals towards making 1.5°C lifestyle choices. Here are some potential opportunities for choice editing:

  • Product or service designers: Manufacturers can choice edit products and services at an early stage, either at the design stage or as the customer portfolio is shaped.
  • Brand owners: Choice editing could also be the responsibility of a brand team. This team will look at the different market segments served and edit the choice of products and services provided to each.
  • Retail teams: Retailers often already choice edit stock in different geographical areas for different markets. Again, there is an opportunity to shift the criteria used to make these decisions away from profitability. Instead, as a retailer, consider the impact of supplier products on the environment and edit accordingly.

2. Governments can help businesses and consumers make the right choices

Governments can create opportunities for businesses to help their consumers shift to a 1.5°C lifestyle.

Setting standards creates a baseline for businesses, whether at a national, EU, or even global level. A recent example is the new International Sustainability Standards Board, which will create greater consistency around how sustainability performance is reported.

Carbon pricing is also critical to ensuring that the cost of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is recognized. There are many different approaches to carbon pricing using the polluter pays principle. Carbon pricing applies a cost to carbon emissions and offers incentives for emitting fewer of them, effectively using market forces to move the cost of climate change onto those most responsible for it rather than society at large.

Policies such as bans on plastic shopping bags or single-use plastic packaging in supermarkets are other examples of basic choice editing policies already proven to be impactful and popular.

3. Businesses can dematerialize growth.

As businesses grow, they produce consumer goods that use natural resources and create higher carbon emissions.

One alternative is dematerialization: increasing and improving the quality of services rather than producing more material goods.

Companies such as Airbnb and Uber are examples of businesses built on service models rather than production. Clearly, tech can play a significant role in facilitating this with advances that provide opportunities to reduce consumption of natural resources and dematerialize economic growth.

Re-using, recycling, and mainstreaming vintage clothes and furniture, as well as renting tools, wedding dresses or household machines are all increasingly popular behaviors. These examples contribute to a circular economy, an economy free of waste and pollution.

Key takeaways

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What can policymakers do?

Lifestyle changes and the ways in which people contribute to a future fair consumption or safe operating space are not only influenced by market forces.

Other non-commercial factors, such as public policy in national, regional, and city government, also play a crucial role in shifting both business and individual behaviors and choices. Climate policy must be complemented with social measures to ensure that everyone in society benefits.

By meeting needs equitably, policymakers can make an impact and help society contribute to achieving the 1.5°C target.

Here are a few ways that policymakers can do this:

1. EU, national, regional, and city governments can complement the transition with social support measures

All levels of government can help ensure that social and economic support is in place to enable people to make the required changes.

The EU's Social Climate Fund, planned for ETS 2.0, is an example. The fund will be used to provide direct income support for vulnerable households, as well as supporting measures and investments that reduce emissions in the road, transport, and building sectors. The aim is to keep costs down for vulnerable households, micro-enterprises, and transport users.

This funding is in addition to other social measures in place to compensate for higher costs related to stricter climate policies. These include a share of ETS revenues dedicated to the Modernisation Fund for more impoverished member states to upgrade their energy infrastructure. Another is the Just Transition Fund, a key tool to support the EU regions most affected by the transition towards climate neutrality. The fund provides tailored support and is equipped with €19.2 billion.

2. Create a social foundation to guide policymaking

To underpin this kind of social support, governments can build their policymaking on a values-driven social foundation.

One example of this, outlined in the Hot or Cool report, is the idea of the Social Guarantee. This principle recognizes that everyone shares the same set of basic human needs. When those needs are met, people can actively participate in society.

This isn’t a single policy. Instead, it is an overarching route for policy over a range of areas of public life, providing a more collective-based way forward for policymakers. The approach also recognizes that there comes a point where those needs are met and that subsequent over-consumption is not useful. Sometimes more work, or more food, is unnecessary and can even be damaging.

The idea of universal basic services (UBS) is just one example of a potential policy that could come out of this framework. Under UBS, cities, local authorities, or national institutions provide unconditional access to a range of free basic public services.

UBS can influence what people want to purchase and help them to understand the negative impacts of overconsumption. This, in turn, helps to create a space in which fair and sustainable consumption becomes the norm.

Another often-used concept that combines social safeguards with sustainable management of natural resources is Doughnut Economics. This is a visual framework for sustainable development—shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt— the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries.

3. Governments can be creative with models

Supporting citizens according to their needs, not their ability to pay, creates greater solidarity and a shared desire to contribute to a sustainable future. It creates a positive environment that allows for even more creativity in terms of developing local 1.5°C target models.

One example of how governments can promote a positive, proactive relationship with citizens and businesses around 1.5°C targets is in Flanders. There, the Local Energy and Climate Pact (LEKP) is set up to address climate change at a local level. The pact focuses on greening, participatory energy, sustainable mobility, and rainwater, with some inspiringly tangible objectives. These include planting one tree per inhabitant, delivering 50 collective renovations for every 1,000 housing units, and providing one charging point for every 100 inhabitants. With 293 of the 300 Flemish cities and municipalities in Belgium participating, it is a proven success.

Elsewhere, networks of energy cooperatives such as the non-profit organization REScoop.eu offer an alternative for millions of citizens across Europe who want to take greater ownership and responsibility for replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. The regulatory initiatives at the regional or national level are in some cases the main obstacle for these decentralized new energy market entrants, especially in countries in which centralized energy systems still prevail.

Key takeaways

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Conclusion

Whether as individual citizens, businesspeople, or policymakers, we all face the same challenge: a finite global carbon budget remains. The IPCC states that the remaining carbon budget for keeping global heating to 1.5°C is equivalent to only another decade of emissions at the current level. At the same time, there is a huge variance in lifestyle greenhouse gas emissions across different nations and sectors of society.

Finding and developing models that are easy to implement at all levels in order to collectively bring emissions down and remain under 1.5°C is an imperative challenge of our time.

To meet this, a common methodology is needed. The ideas of a fair consumption space, a safe operating space within the planetary boundaries, or the carbon budget bathtub model are all potential options. Each one offers a way forward that allows society to share the remaining natural resources in an equitable way.

Making progress towards a 1.5°C lifestyle and achieving ambitious climate targets will not just depend on the actions of individuals.

Any successful transition will come from a combination of individual lifestyle, systemic, political, and technological changes that provide opportunities for everyone to contribute.

Collaboration is therefore key for this major transformation towards a sustainable society.

Meet the authors
  1. Katrin Heeren, Director, Climate and Sustainability + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    Katrin is a senior environmental professional with over 20 years of work experience in biodiversity, climate, and sustainability policy and practice. View bio

  2. Elena Linczenyiova, Director, Content and Policy + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    Elena translates the complexity of European Union policies into clear and engaging content, with over two decades of strategic communication and broadcast journalism experience. View bio