In the recent book, Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now, there’s a graph that shows the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of various foods. At the top of the scale, one kilo of beef produces 59.6 kilos of emissions. By comparison, a kilo of tofu generates three kilos. Most fruits and vegetables? Less than one. This explainer shows how reducing beef in our diets is one of the biggest contributions we can make to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Governments and the private sector bear most of the responsibility for setting and meeting emissions reduction targets. However, reaching and sustaining those goals will inescapably depend on individuals’ behaviour changes, too.
The 2020 UN Emissions Gap report shows that our lifestyle choices — including size of residence, modes of transportation, food and the purchase of consumer goods — generate two-thirds of all carbon emissions.
According to research cited in the 2021 Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change, if the richest 10 per cent of humanity lowered their emissions to the level of the average European, global emissions would drop by one-third.
Where to start?
First, by recognizing that in addition to net carbon reductions, the actions we take motivate governments and companies to move more quickly. Reducing emissions through lifestyle changes motivates our families, friends and neighbours and catalyzes broader systemic shifts.
Change our diets
Consuming less meat and dairy, while eating more grains, fruit and vegetables benefits the environment and leads to improved health outcomes. A win-win, but we also need to assist affected farmers and their suppliers in transition.
Fly less often
Thanks to COVID-19 and the spread of flygskam (flight shame), cutting back on flights and holding more online meetings is already underway. Given that we live in a large country, air travel might be something that needs to be retained and substantially offset. It may be time to make offsets mandatory and hold airlines responsible for providing them.
Buy less stuff and buy from companies with a social and environmental bottom line
Overcoming society’s addiction to excessive consumption opens up opportunities to improve everyone’s well-being, including that of future generations and the non-human world. However, advocating for reduced consumer spending conflicts with pervasive assumptions about economic growth and social well-being.
When will we accept that buying things we don’t need deepens the multiple crises we’re in? A robust sharing economy would ensure no one need go without essential goods like vehicles, tools and children’s sports equipment.
The emergence of a circular economy — replacing our current, linear “take, make, use, waste” society with one that conserves material resources, reduces energy and water use, and generates less waste and pollution — offers the means to decarbonize whole supply chains while enabling people to be equitably employed.
Invest in transition
The finance and investment field is another area where massive change is needed and where individuals can make a difference. At COP26, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney announced nearly 500 banks and investment firms had agreed to align $130 trillion in their control with the Paris Agreement’s climate goals.
We’re talking about everyone’s savings and investments, and investment firms are racing to make ESG (environment, social and governance) options available to individuals. But when was the last time your pension fund asked your opinion or gave you an option to direct a portion of your pension fund investments to Indigenous-owned companies or to regenerative agriculture?
Talk about what concerns you. Volunteer. Advocate. Governments pay attention to letters and petitions, and companies respond to market signals. At home, at work and in our communities, we must discuss what matters most to us as society embarks on large-scale transition, insisting on public consultations where all are included.
It is important not to shame people who can’t afford organic food or an electric car, but to build community solidarity and resilience around the contributions each of us can make.
With governments and the private sector now stepping up, but still falling short of what’s needed, the actions we take and the choices we make become all the more important. With little time to act, our mantra should be, “bolder, faster, together.”
Stephen Huddart is a member of the Transition Innovation Group hosted by Community Foundations of Canada.