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How to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Target consumers

ShoppersWhile we’re not fans of using the word “consumer” as a synonym for “person,” we are intrigued by a new report that finds our consumption choices could help cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by mid-century.

“Surveys around the world show that consumers are willing to tackle climate change,” states the study from the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. “But they face some common barriers — the availability and price of low-carbon products, lack of information, and a sense of hopelessness in the face of a huge problem.

“The challenge for decision-makers is therefore to overcome these barriers and to unleash consumer and business action against climate change.”

The research, led by Mohan Munasinghe, Director General of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, estimates that, in the UK alone, consumers are directly or indirectly responsible for 75 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. If people in the developed world could make better consumption choices in line with government targets, emissions could see a 50-per cent reduction by 2050.

The study recommends using such tools as tax incentives, public procurement decisions and targeted marketing to stimulate consumer demand for low-carbon products and services.

“Consumption transcends national boundaries,” said Munasinghe. “Businesses serve consumers, operate globally and can work quickly. So the opportunity is there for consumers working with, I(and) helped by businesses, to lead a green revolution that will help governments achieve more ambitious emissions reduction targets and (this) report shows how this can be achieved.”

Munasinghe is vice chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former US Vice President Al Gore.

“Consumption is directly linked to greenhouse gas emissions through fossil fuel power sources, the use of carbon-based materials in manufacturing and large greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” Munasinghe said. “Business and government must empower consumers by removing the many individual barriers they face when trying to make low-carbon choices.”

Rather than calculate emissions for each country based on the goods and services they produce, Munasinghe’s study allocates emissions according to where goods and services are consumed. The results, he said, were “striking.”

“For example, nearly 20 per cent of China’s emissions are produced on behalf of other countries,” he wrote in the report. “Conversely, emissions from the US would be 8 per cent higher when counted by consumption.”

Addressing that will take new and innovative strategies, he added, as “people in developed countries are unlikely to accept the sort of reductions in their standards of living that would be needed to deliver emissions reductions on the required scale of 80 per cent by 2050. Similarly, people in developing countries will not be prepared to forego the benefits of economic development in the name of mitigating climate change.”

In addition to establishing incentives to stimulate demand for low-carbon products and services, the report’s other recommendations to change consumer habits include:

  • Businesses should take action to reduce emissions in all stages in their operations: primary production, manufacture, distribution, consumer use and disposal;
  • Governments need to developinternationally agreed measures of the carbon content and impact of products and services. Applying international accountancy standards would make the pursuit and adoption of these measures more efficient and accessible.
  • Consumers must be empowered to make greener choices through better pricing and information.

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