Edinburgh street, Photo by Emran Yousof on Unsplash

Challenging consumption to cut carbon footprints

01 June, 2020

Diana Ivanova

Reading time: 7 minutes

Our society needs to drastically reduce carbon footprints to limit climate change – crucially, these considerations should govern policy and action worldwide, including the response to the COVID pandemic.

Our society needs to drastically reduce carbon footprints to limit climate change. This requires tightening environmental standards and policies, greening infrastructure and service provisioning, and re-thinking consumption. Crucially, these climate considerations should govern policy and action worldwide, including the response to the COVID pandemic.

Globally, the carbon footprint per capita is about 6 tCO2eq/cap [1], exceeding the 1.5°C climate targets more than three times [2]. The average household carbon footprint of North America amounts of 13 tCO2eq/cap, while that of Africa and the Middle East – to less than 2 tCO2eq/cap [3]. Our planet cannot sustain this overconsumption. We need ambitious policy and industry climate responses, which make binding commitments to the climate targets and act by their commitments. Carbon footprints are also very unequal across the globe, with the wealthy usually being the biggest polluters. Placing the focus on fair distribution is key in the aim to satisfy human needs within planetary boundaries.

In a recent article published in the journal of Environmental Research Letters, we – a team of international scholars – screened nearly 7,000 studies from across fields to uncover climate-friendly consumption options. We estimated carbon reduction potential associated with food, transport, housing and other consumption, considering the entire lifecycle and global supply chains.

Top 10 consumption options

We find that the top climate-friendly options have substantial potential for carbon savings. Adopting the Top 10 options offer emission reductions of up to 9 tCO2eq/cap in wealthy countries, without betting on controversial technologies. Car-free cities, plant-based diets, renewable sources of electricity and heating as well as local holiday plans, all offer the possibility to drastically reduce the carbon footprints of our ways of life and supply chains.

Our analysis suggests that car-free living alone offers more than 2 tCO2eq/cap of carbon savings per year on average, making it the top option from our list. Active and public transport alternatives have much lower carbon intensities per travelled distance. The reduction potential of a car-free living varies substantially with travel distance, car and fuel characteristics.

Top ten consumer options toreduce carbon footprint: Live car-free, battery electric vehicle, one less long-haul flight, renewable electricity, public transport, refurbishment & renovation, vegan diet, heat pump, im proved cooking equipment and renewable-based heating

A shift to electric vehicle may also help reduce carbon footprint. However, there is also a risk of backfire, as strong fossil fuel dependence eliminates any carbon savings. For example, with 64% of the electricity generation coming from brown and black coal, a shift to electric in Australia will actually increase emissions rather than decrease them [4].

Reducing air travel is another key option, where avoiding just one long-haul return flight saves 2 tCO2eq/cap on average. With the increase in traffic historically outpacing any efficiency improvements [5], only reduction in flights can realistically bring emissions down in this sector. Air travel is a luxury item that is extremely unequally distributed with large parts of the  population almost entirely excluded from aviation [6,7]. At the same time, a significant and growing portion of the carbon budget is allocated to air travel with growing demand, airport expansions [8] and recent governmental bailouts of airlines without environmental conditions [9]. Similar to other sectors, air travel levels should fit within the planetary boundaries and per capita carbon allowances.

In terms of diet, reducing the amount of animal products can most successfully decrease carbon footprints per capita. The carbon intensity per calorie is substantially lower for plant-based foods, especially compared to meat products. Deforestation (and emissions from land use change) are also most significant for meat-intensive diets due to increases in land requirements for pasture and growing feed [10]. Beyond carbon emissions, diets are key for various environmental impacts such as water and land use, eutrophication, biodiversity and ecological resilience [11].

Finally, in the housing domain, opting for renewable electricity and heating show great potential to reduce carbon footprints. Other effective ways to reduce energy demand include refurbishment and renovation, installing a heat pump and better thermal insulation, and reducing living space. The carbon and energy intensity of sources and materials and geographical differences play a key factor in the mitigation potential of these options.

The way forward

In the aim of a good life within planetary boundaries, we should support these climate-friendly visions at any level. Developing and maintaining green infrastructure and provisioning should also be a core principle in the coronavirus recovery [12]. Furthermore, we should strengthen environmental standards and radically degrow activities of excessive consumption, such as the extraction and use of fossil fuels or advertising [13]. We need to also ensure a just transition for the workers, whose livelihoods have been affected in the re-design of consumption.

Re-designing consumption requires 0vercoming existing social, infrastructural and institutional barriers, which “lock” us in carbon-intensive ways of living. For example, living car-free shows a great potential to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. Yet, major industries and policies continually reinforce car dependence in our societies [14]. Challenging this undesirable status quo requires addressing this carbon lock-in at its core.

We need to mobilise across the global supply chains and become active change makers. Returning to the pre-COVID “business (and consumption) as usual” is not only undesirable [15], but also brings us towards environmental collapse. The wide adoption of climate-friendly consumption options instead offers a great opportunity to achieve climate targets and well-being across the world.


Ivanova, D., Barrett, J., Wiedenhofer, D., Macura, B., Callaghan, M. and Creutzig, F. 2020. Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options. Environmental Research Letters, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/ab8589

  • tCO2eq/cap = tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per person per year.
  • Carbon footprint definition – the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organisation or community, such as a country or continent.


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  2. Girod, B. and van Vuuren, D.P. 2014. Hertwich, E.G. Climate policy through changing consumption choices: Options and obstacles for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Global Environmental Change, 25, 5–15.
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  15. The Independent. Britons enjoying cleaner air, better food and stronger social bonds say they don’t want to return to ‘normal’.

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