Are your choices really climate friendly?

Reference: Eivind Lekve Bjelle, Kjartan Steen & Olsen Richard Wood (2018) Climate change mitigation potential of Norwegian households and the rebound effect. Journal of Cleaner Production. 172:20.

Greenhouse gases emissions and climate change

I live near Stockholm in Sweden. This summer started unusually early (in the beginning of May) and was uncharacteristically warm,  even hot. In other places around the globe, my friends were talking about unusually cold or wet months. According to news reports, this year for the first time, every Swedish resident was affected by some kind of extreme weather event. This spiked awareness levels of climate change, making it “real” for more people.

According to the 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, currently we are experiencing results of approximately 1°C increase above pre-industrial levels. The report predicts that global warming is likely to reach +1.5°C between 2030 and 2050, if the current trend continues and we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The effects have been illustrated by a number of sources, including the CarbonBrief website, which shows through a number of interactive illustrations the impacts that 1.5, 2 or 4°C above pre-industrial levels would have on our planet based on scientific studies. Another example is the World Wildlife Fund, which in the infographic below summarizes the difference just half a degree can make.

Source: World Wildlife Fund

The good news is that if we act now and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050, we can limit the global warming to 1.5 °C by the end of the century. For this to work, everyone needs to chip in: from big corporations to small business, from households and to individuals. As an individual, you can reduce your carbon footprint (greenhouse gas emissions) by either decreasing your total consumption, or consuming goods and services that less greenhouse gas intense.

How re-spending affects your greenhouse gases emissions / carbon footprint

Let’s assume that an individual is making choices while having his climate friendly “hat” on and has decided to walk to work instead of driving. By doing this, he/she is saving some amount of money and also reducing their carbon footprint. Perhaps this individual then re-spends this saved money on a vacation by airplane to a faraway destination. This is called the rebound effect: the trip, in this example, results in greenhouse gas emissions that diminish the actual reduction in emissions from the initial choice of walking instead of driving.

Another example of a rebound effect is buying a car that uses less fuel per km, but increasing overall driving by driving longer distances, because cost per km have decreased. This, like the other example, results in the same or higher greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: Havard Policy Lab.

In their study from 2017 Eivind Lekve Bjelle and his colleagues from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology investigated how Norwegian households could improve their consumer behavior in order to curb the rebound effect. The authors conclude that reduction in carbon footprint of 35-45% can be reached without massive alterations in expenditure habits. The idea is that households look for ways to consume less of goods and services associated specifically with fossil fuel use, such as transportation, and production processes demanding heavy use of resources, such as clothing and certain manufactured goods. This category also include goods that may not have generated a lot of greenhouse gases in production, but produce it in transportation.

Bjelle et al. showed that, with climate friendly choices, such as reducing indoor temperature by 1 °C, eliminating food waste, reducing printing, cutting clothing purchases by 20%, buying local products, or reducing washing temperature, people were able to drop their carbon footprint by 58% by household initially. However, when they included rebound effects into re-spending scenarios, this reduction of carbon footprint was only 24-35%, which is not enough to limit global warming to even 2°C by the end of century. In order to lower the rebound effect, as much as possible, we ought to apply the same logic to re-spending as with original spending – consume less of greenhouse gas intense goods and services.

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Anna Filyushkina

Anna Filyushkina

I am a postdoctoral researcher at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences working on land use and ecosystem services. I've earned a double PhD in Environmental Economics and Forestry from University of Copenhagen and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. I am particularly interested in interactions between services (such as biodiversity and recreation) both in rural and urban settings. Twitter: northern_time

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