Climate Change

What can consumers do to help solve the climate change crisis?

Woman standing in front of vegetable shelves choosing what to buy.

Consumers need better environmental information about products so they can make the right choices. Image: Freepik.

Maciej Kolaczkowski
Manager, Advanced Energy Solutions Industry, World Economic Forum
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Climate Change

  • Global action on climate change is building pace amongst the public and private sector, strengthened by the Paris Agreement.
  • COVID-19 has temporarily reduced emissions, but as the world emerges from a state of lockdown they will inevitably rise unless radical action is taken.
  • Consumers can play a crucial role in reducing emissions and slowing climate change by making more environmentally conscious purchases.

In 2015, Parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement, to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. It was signed by 175 countries, making it the largest number of countries ever to sign an international agreement on a single day. Since then the number increased to 186 countries.

Have you read?

Almost all the world’s governments are firmly committed to help stop climate change. Within this framework, business has a responsibility to deliver it. The private sector increasingly appreciates its role. A growing number of companies are working to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through a combination of individual actions and collaborative initiatives like Universal ESG Reporting, Race to Zero or Climate Action.

Yet, despite all these efforts, the CO2 emissions continue to grow. COVID-19 seems to have merely slowed down this growth for the moment and emissions are likely to start growing again.

What can we do about it?

As consumers we need to appreciate the link between our own behaviour and its impact on the environment. Consumers are responsible for 60-70% of all direct and indirect emissions. We can lead the change we so desperately want.

Impact varies, depending on income level. There is at least a 10-fold difference in carbon footprint between low- and high-income households. According to Global Demographics, 21% of households represent 61% of total global income. A household qualifies as high-income globally, when it makes $38,000 or more annually.

Hence, the need for all high-income, high-spend consumers to select, buy and use all goods in a way that matches our climate ambitions – particularly if your household spends $38,000 or more annually.

Clearly, consumer action is not the only way of mitigating climate change, and we will need all possible efforts and improvements from governments and industries. However, as households are responsible for two-thirds of all direct and indirect emissions, I believe that consumers need to be a big part of this change.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

5 ways you can make a difference

1) Understand your own direct and indirect emissions. There are several carbon footprint calculators, like footprintcalculator.org, conservation.org or WWF. Each has pros and cons, but they all return consistent results.

In my case these results are not only consistent, but also quite disturbing. Based on my lifestyle, my pre-pandemic emissions are in the range of 28-32 tons of CO2 per year. From these results I learned that we would need eight planet Earths if everyone lived like I do. When I slashed car travel by half and eliminated the air travel entirely (to account for the pandemic), I emit half of pre-COVID-19 levels. Better, but still four times too much and three planets too many.

2) Strive to get access to information. Today, it is often difficult to understand the impact of products you buy. Are you able to say which apple in your usual grocery store is the most environmentally friendly? Or most importantly all your clothes, cars, meat, electronics and cloud services, not to mention your energy use?

Trailblazing companies provide information related to carbon footprint to help make better choices, however it is not a mainstream practice yet. Hopefully, a growing number of companies will leverage initiatives like the Open Footprint Forum to increase accuracy and transparency around industry measurement and reporting of environmental footprint.

More needs to be done in this space and governments have a big role to play. According to Eurobarometer survey, 72% of EU citizens agree that carbon footprint information on products should be mandatory. A system of informing consumers is needed, possibly through carbon footprint labels. Governments could help introduce such labelling standards for industries to use. But in the meantime, seek out the information as it is increasingly available.

3) Start making better consumer choices. It often seems that there is only a binary choice available – to consume or not – with very limited options to consume more responsibly. However, increased access to information often proves that more choices exist.

For example, looking at the Just Salad menu, one of the choices I could make is between Maple Crispy Chicken Salad and Chicken Pitta Salad. They both include chicken, and both contain similar calories. However, the carbon footprint of the latter is 60% greater than the former. Imagine if we could do the same for all our consumer choices.

4) Be prepared to pay for it. Higher quality products or services often will not be cheaper than high polluting ones. Cleaning up the supply chains, doing things right will cost money. Be ready to pay a premium for a low emissions product. Hopefully one day we will reach a scale in which such trade-offs don’t exist anymore.

5) Help others increase their awareness. Make sure your family understands their impact. Help them make better choices and you will multiply your impact.

Some argue that addressing climate change is the responsibility of governments and industries. It is because we need a revolution, not just a wealthy few feeling better about themselves. I strongly believe that each of these stakeholders has an important role to play. Governments need to enable and educate, and industries need to clean up their operations and deliver sustainable products along with more information.

At the same time, I am convinced that consumers can also lead this revolution. The more a person consumes, the bigger responsibility they have. So, make yourself and others aware, seek out information, make cautious choices and create demand for better products. If you can afford it, be ready to pay more. When consumers do that, the car manufacturers, the oil companies and the meat producers will follow.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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