Bolder, faster, together: Perspectives on societal transition, co-ordinated by the Transition Innovation Group at Community Foundations of Canada, is a series on Canada’s National Observer that poses this question: How can we all take responsibility for the past, navigate a turbulent present and co-operate to protect future generations?
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.
It won’t be easy. The federal government estimates that by 2019, Canada’s per capita emissions had declined 15 per cent over 2005 levels — just over 1 per cent per year. Lowering emissions 40 to 45 per cent by 2030, as our federal government has promised, requires annual reductions four times greater. What should be clear is that to achieve this target — and beyond that, to have a chance of establishing an equitable net-zero economy by 2050 — we have to learn to live healthier and more meaningful lives by consuming less and adopting less material paths to human development.
A “sustainable lifestyle” is a cluster of habits and patterns of behaviour embedded in a society and facilitated by institutions, norms and infrastructures that frame individual choice to minimize the use of natural resources and generation of wastes, while supporting fairness and prosperity for all.
— A Framework for Shaping Sustainable Lifestyles, UNEP (2016)
The path to net-zero emissions
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 whereby all segments of society make essential adjustments. Here are some opportunities for reducing carbon footprints, along with suggestions for policy and product innovation.
Opinion: Our personal choices will determine how fast we achieve net-zero emissions, writes @stephenhuddart. #ClimateChange
Changing how we eat. 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 with the consequent need to assist affected farmers and their suppliers in transition.
Flying less often. Thanks to COVID 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. But have you tried to purchase offsets for an Air Canada flight lately? You certainly can’t do it via the airline’s website. A Bullfrog Power subsidiary, Less, will do it. But it may be time to make offsets mandatory, and hold airlines responsible for providing them.
Buying less stuff. Whenever possible, 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?
Can we move to a model of “private sufficiency and (shared) public wealth”? A robust sharing economy would ensure no one is without essential goods like vehicles, tools and children’s sports equipment. Moreover, 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.
Listen to the experts. The Expert Panel on the Circular Economy in Canada’s recent report, Turning Point, deserves to be widely read and discussed. One of its recommendations is to provide the public with more data about the carbon emissions of specific products and their supply chains. This will require companies to share data, which they have been reluctant to do for competitive reasons. Government has a role to play in establishing a data commons where product information is gathered and freely available.
Investing 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?
Speak up. 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.
The invention of the ‘ecological footprint’ at UBC in the 1990’s led to the creation of the global ecofootprint calculator. Today, we need better metrics with which to measure and modify our environmental impacts — not just individually, but also at the community level. Instead of shaming people who can’t afford organic food or an electric car, the point is to build community solidarity and resilience around the contributions each of us can make. Two resources to check out: the US site, Bright Action links residents to actions they can take in their own communities. Nanaimo’s Community Climate Connectors is another good example to build on.
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. He lives in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, long known as a gathering place for many First Nations, and site of the Great Peace of 1701.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to provide additional information about carbon footprint calculators.