Equitable 1.5 Degree Lifestyles

How socially fair policies can support the implementation of the Green Deal

The Communication on the European Green Deal both sets the goal that Europe become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and stresses that this transition should be fair and inclusive. This focus on fairness and inclusivity at the heart of the climate transition has been directly emphasised by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans. Climate change and socioeconomic inequality are mutually reinforcing. Climate impacts hit vulnerable and low-income households the hardest, while the rising consumption of ‘luxury goods’ by high-income groups contributes to the acceleration of climate change. Tackling unsustainable consumption patterns is at the core of addressing this link.

This policy brief provides a research overview of the equity implications of ‘1.5-Degree Lifestyles’, meaning lifestyles that are compatible with the 1.5°C aspirational target of the Paris Agreement. When emissions are calculated based on consumption rather than production, an individual’s average annual emissions come out to 4.8 tCO₂eq globally and 8.2 tCO₂eq within the EU. To stay within the limit of 1.5°C, this level must fall to 2.5 tCO₂eq by 2030 and 0.7 tCO₂eq by 2050. However, the emissions reductions achieved in Europe thus far have rested mainly on lower income groups. The absence of a policy focus on the high-carbon activities of high-income groups raises substantial ethical and equity concerns, especially given these groups’ high capacity for climate change mitigation.

Designing appropriate policies in this area means addressing a variety of challenges:

  1. The most climate-relevant consumption areas (food, mobility, and housing) are interconnected and need to be addressed holistically. All three sectors are central to the way we live.
  2. The most significant determinant of a person’s carbon footprint is income. Today, the richest 10% of the global population are responsible for almost half of total consumption related emissions while the poorest 50% account for only about 10%.
  3. To effectively tackle GHG emissions, climate policies have to be explicitly designed in a fair way.5-Degree Lifestyles can be diverse as long as they stay within ecological boundaries; however, to be equitable, policies should strengthen the prospects of the most vulnerable groups while reducing the carbon-intensive consumption patterns of high-income groups.

A common solution for reducing unsustainable consumption patterns is “getting the price right” by internalising the environmental costs of products and services. However, this paper argues that while price signals play a crucial role, they alone do not take fairness into account and may be insufficient in accelerating decarbonisation. Policies which aim to influence aggregate demand and foster lifestyle change must be carefully designed to generate social acceptance and avoid potential harm. To do this, policies must address the root causes of unsustainable consumption in a holistic way and as part of the path toward building a more equitable society.

Against this background, this policy brief stresses the importance of a demand-side perspective and argues for a needs-based approach to ensure the public acceptance of meaningful climate policies. This paper is built around fundamental concepts such as consumption corridors, personal carbon budgets and universal basic services as important for the design of policies compatible with a 1.5°C scenario. Focusing on the EU policy context, it develops a map of policy instruments which either support or hinder equitable 1.5-Degree Lifestyles.

The report Equitable 1.5 Degree Lifestyles: How Socially Fair Policies Can Support the Implementation of the Green Deal is an instalment in the publication series Policy Pathways towards 1.5-Degree Lifestyles.  The policy briefs in this series present insights from academic research and exchange between the ZOE Institute, policymakers, and other stakeholders, and serve as a basis for an ongoing set of thematic Policy Labs exploring how future-fit policy pathways for Europe can be created in the most carbon-intensive consumption sectors.


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