Ask a climate scientist: Why are personal choices so important for the climate?

You’ve got climate questions? We’ve got answers — from Karen Moberg, a leading researcher on European household consumption.

Looking for answers about climate change? You’re in the right place. For our second edition of Ask a climate scientist, (if you missed it, check out our previous release with Dr. Ed Maibach), we had the pleasure of speaking with Karen Moberg, a researcher at the Western Norway Research Institute studying the climate impact of household consumption in European countries. 

Some of her recent work includes the HOPE Project, an international research initiative which studied private households’ willingness to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The study’s goal was to identify which incentives could promote household action to help shape policy recommendations.

We shared a few of the Klima community’s questions, asked her how individuals can help in the fight against climate change, and got a few insider tips on how to green up our own lives.

Do my choices at home really contribute to climate change? 

Yes, absolutely. A 2009 study linked 72% of greenhouse gas emissions to household consumption. You see, the private consumption-dimension is hardly targeted by today's climate policies — which is problematic given how large a share of global emissions can be linked to household consumption activities.

We should really start paying closer attention to consumption-related emissions — like those directly and indirectly related to our diets, mobility choices, and the goods and services we all buy. From this broader perspective, it's clear that the individual choices we make as consumers (and the consumption activities we engage in) can play a significant role in curbing global emissions.

My partner thinks that adopting a sustainable lifestyle is expensive. What could I tell him to convince him it’s not true?

The HOPE Project provided us with some really interesting learnings here. All households participating in the study received a catalogue with about 60 mitigation measures they could take to reduce their footprints. These actions included implementing efficiency improvements and reducing consumption volumes.

We found that some efficiency-based actions would increase costs for individuals in the short-term (when making energy efficiency refurbishments, for example), while volume reduction actions, such as reducing meat consumption or flying less, would actually save you money from the start. Living a sustainable lifestyle simply means consuming less — and therefore spending less!

Beside switching to renewable energy and saving electricity at home, what else can I do to reduce my household’s carbon footprint?

The most impactful actions you can take are reducing air travel and private car use, as well as cutting animal products in your diet. Picking public transport instead of a private car (or even better, walking or cycling), reducing food waste, as well as buying less food that travelled long distances in a frozen state, are all very effective ways to reduce your daily CO2e emissions.

Can you tell us some facts that really surprised you during your research on household consumption?

It was interesting to see how many people underestimated the climate impact of day-to-day behaviors. Some were genuinely convinced recycling was the most they could do to help the planet, and were amazed to find out they could achieve so much more with relatively little effort.

Six months after taking part in the HOPE simulation of reducing household emissions through different types of consumption changes, we talked to a smaller group of the simulation participants. Many said they became more aware of their personal impact on the climate, and had rethought some of their consumption activities because of it.

Another interesting learning was how many of the people we talked to six months after the HOPE simulation described a low-carbon future as something really positive. Many thought of it as a better way of life, not just at the climate level, but also from a health and social point of view.

Do you have any tips for being greener while working from home?

I haven’t done any scientific work on this topic, but I can share some personal reflections based on what I know about energy, food, and transport-related emissions. Working from home compared to commuting to work by car or public transport and working in an office building requiring energy for heating or cooling, and other things, is likely more climate-friendly if it reduces the amount of energy used for offices and transport.

However, it also depends of course on how much we change our energy consumption (related to heating and such) at home when spending more time there. That's important to remember. Working from home might also be an opportunity to introduce new good habits to our daily routines, like reducing food waste by utilizing leftovers for lunch and making sure to switch off our electronic devices when no longer using them.

I would love my office to become more sustainable but my employer doesn’t seem to be interested — what could I do to try and convince them? 

Although I’m not an expert in this topic, here are a few personal tips. If you’d like your office to become greener, get your colleagues on board and open a conversation with the management. If your company isn't sustainable yet, highlight the benefits of going green to the management (e.g improved health of employees, cost cuts, competitive advantage, etc). Make concrete suggestions for improvement, such as offering more vegan or vegetarian options at the canteen, switching to LED bulbs, reducing physical meetings that require travel, or decreasing cooling and heating in the building.

And finally, our own question for you. Which projects are you currently working on?

I'm currently in the phase of finishing my PhD on governance of urban land use in small Norwegian municipalities, with a focus on how nature spaces in and around the urban areas have been considered since the 1990s. I'm aiming to improve our understanding of the governance processes that drive development in a certain direction, often at the expense of nature — and specifically what can be done to reduce loss of nature as we develop our communities.

I'm also just about to embark on a new project called "Climate Budget 2.0" in Norway, where we'll study how to scale down global carbon budgets to Norway, and subsequently to a fair and equitable share for the project's case studies, encompassing both direct and indirect emissions related to local activity. We'll then use strategic climate games in local processes for policy development and sustainability planning, with the aim of arriving at strategies and policies that are compatible with the local climate budgets.

Have YOU got any burning climate questions you’re dying to ask? Send us an e-mail at hi@klima.com or follow us on social and send us your questions there.

Nicoletta Maestrini
by Nicoletta Maestrini
Communications Assistant
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