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Are We Missing the Opportunity of Low-Carbon Lifestyles? International Climate Policy Commitments and Demand-Side Gaps

  • Published on February 1, 2022

Current commitments in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are insufficient to remain within the 2-degree climate change limit agreed to in the Paris Agreement. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that lifestyle changes are now necessary to stay within the limit. We reviewed a range of NDCs and national climate change strategies to identify inclusion of low-carbon lifestyles. We found that most NDCs and national climate change strategies do not yet include the full range of necessary mitigation measures targeting lifestyle change, particularly those that could reduce indirect emissions. Some exceptional NDCs, such as those of Austria, Slovakia, Portugal and the Netherlands, do include lifestyle changes, such as low-carbon diets, reduced material consumption, and low-carbon mobility. Most countries focus on supply-side measures with long lag times and might miss the window of opportunity to shape low-carbon lifestyle patterns, particularly those at early stages of development trajectories. Systemic barriers exist that should be corrected before new NDCs are released, including changing the accounting and reporting methodology, accounting for extraterritorial emissions, providing guidance on NDC scope to include the menu of options identified by the IPCC, and increasing support for national level studies to design demand-side policies.

Human-induced climate change threatens ecosystems and populations around the world today and increasingly in the future. The majority of countries around the world recognize that only collective action will mitigate climate change. This led to 197 countries coming together in 1992 to adopt a multilateral environmental treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Their objective was “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”. The timing of this agreement is relevant given that there was less scientific evidence at the time regarding climate change, and yet member States were driven “to act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty”. It took more than 20 years to agree on the common goal of keeping climate change-related temperature increases to less than 2 degrees, and to pursue efforts to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees, through the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The first round of nationally determined contributions was largely complete (186 submissions from 197 members) by 2020. Studies have modeled the implementation measures and goals set out in the nationally determined contributions and the consensus is that they are not sufficient to reach the 2-degree binding, or 1.5-degree aspirational, goal. UNEP’s 2020 Emission Gap Report estimates that the global emissions resulting from nationally stated mitigation ambitions currently submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 of 53–56 GtCO2-eq per year, aligned with 3 degrees of global heating. Modeled trajectories of global anthropogenic emissions limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees are in the 25 GtCO2-eq per year range.
The implications of this mismatch between goals and trajectories are significant. It means more widespread disruption to climate as well as changing ecosystem services that are fundamental to supporting a functional economy and global population of 10 billion.

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