Addressing climate change is more than a technical challenge and one of the ways to support the technological measures could be through people stepping up to try and change their behaviour
The IPCC Special Report on the probable impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels has substantiated the reasons to enhance ambitions and to pursue greater efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In that vein, the technical responses, i.e., adopting sustainable energy and green solutions, are often seen as magic bullet to attain our goal and seemed to be sexy as well. Not surprisingly, the political and economic incentives are, therefore, mostly being reshaped in that direction to promote technological solutions. However, addressing climate change is more than a technical challenge and one of the ways to support the technological measures could be through people stepping up to try and change the way they behave. The impacts of small changes at individual levels, if brought together, could make big differences.
While there are many aspects of behaviours, where it may be possible to bring changes to influence carbon footprint and thereby, to the climate, I would like to dwell upon only two issues – food consumption and energy use. For instance, diet is being neglected in climate policies. A diet that includes healthy plant-based foods while also meeting the recommended level of calorie has the great potential to reduce carbon footprint compared to the diet that is mostly dominated by meat. Notably, a shift to diets with reduced meat and dairy products and increased vegetables can result in GHG mitigation with no additional cost and can simultaneously deliver health benefits. To that end, it is mentionable that, meat consumption is on the decreasing trajectory in many countries. Yet, per capita meat consumption per year in USA, as Telegraph reported in 2018, astonishingly stood at 120 kg against that of only 4 kg in the most vegetarian country in the world.
Contrary to our enhanced understanding of resource efficiency, both at global and local levels, we are very wasteful of resources. Regrettably, 30% of the total food, being generated globally over a year, according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and featured in BBC this year, is practically wasted by us. Food wastage, as a matter of fact, is a double whammy. Firstly, even before foods are being served to our plates, there are significant GHG emissions arising out of production, processing, packaging, transportation and cooking. Secondly, when approximately one third of global food production is disposed of as waste, substantial amount of methane (CH4) is released into the atmosphere. Remarkably, methane, according to IPCC fifth assessment report, has 28 times more global warming potential compared to CO2 over a 100-year time horizon. On top of all these, when more than 800 million people remain unfed globally, such waste of food is unethical to say the least.
On the other hand, energy efficiency is one of the cornerstones to achieve global greenhouse gas mitigation target. Nevertheless, energy efficiency measures often don't lead to energy savings as projected or expected, which refers to rebound effect and is also known as Jevons paradox. The rebound effect is comprised of two components, viz. direct and indirect rebound. Direct rebound is the percentage of energy savings from efficient appliance being utilized for additional usage of the newly procured efficient appliance. As energy efficiency makes an energy-consuming technology less expensive to use, people use it more frequently. Simply, it's analogous to buying an energy efficient car and driving it more than business-as-usual case. This is the well-known perception for the rebound effect and its presence is pretty clear.
The other component is indirect rebound. It alludes to the way one spends the money that one saves from employing energy efficient appliance. With increased money at the disposal, one may be induced to opt for additional appliance that also consumes energy.
The cumulative effect of both channels of rebound undermines the potential energy benefits of an energy efficient appliance. Therefore, expensive energy efficiency policies, supported by different instruments, may well engender negative rebound effects attributed to behaviours. In fact, energy efficiency relies on, in one way or another, human behaviour.
Policy makers predominantly look to devise policies based on technological solutions to reach their climate targets. However, as follows from this analysis, behavioural changes may contribute to climate change mitigation efforts and this potential, therefore, need to be considered in policy making. Compared to technological options for GHG mitigation, the cost associated to bring behavioural change is usually very low. In addition, such positive behavioural alteration to minimize food waste and energy usage will lead to noteworthy public co-benefits in terms of health, air quality, land use and overall wellbeing.
Notably, the Covid-19 is an eye-opener as to how rapidly we can change our behaviours vis-à-vis minimizing travels, spending time at restaurants and avoiding many other nonessential resource and energy-intensive things. Building on these, as we move-forward, the policy makers should consider taking measures to induce behavioural changes to avoid unnecessary wastage of resources. In that vein, we need to think about using emotional appeals and social incentives to reshape unsustainable resource consumption pattern of people. And these behavioural changes are imperative and would surely complement our technological responses to accomplish the goal for low carbon development.
Shafiqul Alam, a Humboldt Scholar, is a senior advisor in an international development agency