Why gearing towards net zero with low carbon lifestyles is crucial

There is an urgent need to reimagine a sustainable future with an environmentally conscious lifestyle at the individual, household and community levels.

Despite the alarming impacts of climate change, the action across the globe has primarily focussed on technological solutions so far, but what remains woefully under-emphasised are the issues related to lifestyles and behavioural changes. Particularly in Western countries, where per capita emissions are much higher as compared to that of India, there seems to be little emphasis on behavioural changes to lower their consumption rates.

There is an urgent need to reimagine a sustainable future with an environmentally conscious lifestyle at the individual, household and community levels. These small efforts multiplied a million times will sum upto a strong, resilient and collective solution keeping human security at the centre of it. In this context, ‘Lifestyle for the Environment (LiFE)’ movement launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2022 is very significant.

This global initiative that was proposed by the prime minister at COP26 last year calls for mindful utilisation of resources rather than destructive consumption that is prevalent in our lifestyles currently. Speaking at the launch of LiFE initiative, Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said, “The necessity for collective global action to address climate change has never been greater and India’s role and leadership are crucial in ensuring that we reach our climate goals.”

Currently, while the per-capita emissions in India is far lower than that of the Western countries, there is an upward trajectory of growing middle-class households whose emissions are at par with their counterparts in the west. Of the next billion entrants into the global middle class, 280 million are projected to be from India. The household energy use in India is also projected to increase by 65-75 per cent between 2005 and 2050, with a 9-10 times increase in carbon emissions from the 2005 level.

For the LiFE movement to become a reality, we need to better understand how individuals and communities move, consume energy or what they eat – for these decisions have greater potential for mitigation than has been acknowledged by climate policies so far. Conscious choices at an individual and household level will contribute significantly in achieving India’s net-zero target by 2070.

Focus on cities (especially the growing small and mid-sized cities)

India is experiencing unprecedented urbanisation in non-metropolitan cities (urban areas with a population of less than one million). Between 2001 and 2011, India added 2,532 small to mid-sized cities to its urban landscape. Lifestyle-related emissions are on the rise in India, especially in urban areas among middle and high-income families. The carbon footprint of an individual from a high-income category in India is equal to 45 per cent of the global average and that of an individual from a middle-income category is about 23 per cent of the global average.

Given this tremendous rearrangement of urban growth, cities should be the focus of low-carbon lifestyle, recognising the importance of urban energy use and CO2 emissions, the concentration of infrastructure, and the opportunities available for reduction of greenhouse gases. Shifts in urban development patterns, improvements in the availability and accessibility of infrastructures, and changes in urban household-specific practices can have a large potential for reducing GHG emissions.

Photo by grayom on Unsplash / Free to use under the Unsplash License

Tackling emissions sector-Wise

A growing literature on low-carbon lifestyles has identified key consumption areas where consumers can reduce their carbon footprint – mobility, household energy, food consumption and material use. Globally, 72 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are related to household consumption, where the food systems account for 20 per cent and mobility accounts for 17 per cent of GHG emissions. Mitigation strategies for each consumption area and developing frameworks for consumer behaviour and practices aimed at low-carbon lifestyles can help tackle emissions sector wise.

In India, the transportation sector has seen the most rapid sectoral growth of emissions as they increased 224 per cent between 2000 and 2019. While currently only 14 per cent of CO2 emissions by fuel consumption are derived from transportation, they are expected to grow. Switching to zero-emission-vehicles can potentially reduce CO2 emissions from Indian passenger cars.

The emissions from global food systems come from the production phase associated with land use change and agricultural production, while the emissions generated by the post-production and post-sale stages are relatively limited. Understanding the drivers of food waste generation at the individual and community levels, promoting sustainable composting habits and support for local-sourced food and circular food systems, along with changes in dietary patterns and food waste management in cities hold tremendous potential for GHG reduction in Indian cities.

We need behavioural insights around low carbon mobility solutions, which include the uptake of electric vehicles, carpooling/ ridesharing services, non-motorised transport solutions, for household energy use solutions such as the uptake of energy- efficient smart devices and decentralised rooftop solar. For low-carbon food consumption, we need behavioural insights for solutions around changing dietary practices and reducing food waste, and low-carbon material use practices such as waste segregation, recycling and upcycling.

Pro-Environmental Behavioural Frameworks

Dominant frameworks from behavioural sciences have looked at how individuals are rational decision-makers, acting to maximise the expected benefit of their individual decisions. The global action and cooperation to address sustainable consumption has to transcend the North-South divide while addressing the intra-regional issues and differences in experiences of consumption and the imperative to enhance global cooperation to reduce resource use. The global typology for addressing sustainable consumption looks at rational and social consumption approaches, degrowth and just consumption approaches that are aligned with well-living approaches.

Behaviour tools to emerge from such frameworks include regulations such as bans, economic incentives, such as taxes, education and information, such as environmental labels on products, and outreach and marketing campaigns. While such interventions have seen successful results in different scenarios, they are not enough to bring about a lifestyle change. Many consumption choices are often habitual, and behaviour is often influenced by social groups and peers. The incentive to act otherwise is often low because consequences of micro or daily consumption are often hard to see in the larger context of climate change. Beyond nudges and facilitators, structural barriers and demand side constraints, we need frameworks where pro-environmental behaviour becomes part of societal values and norms.

This article was originally published on Firstpost.

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