How politics affects our individual carbon footprint | Knowledge & Environment | DW

If we the global warming really want to stop, we would have to change. To be honest, we would have to change a lot: what we eat, how we heat, get around or shop. In other words, our demand for environmentally harmful products and services would have to fall significantly.

But changes in our lifestyle are difficult for us – who does not know broken New Year’s resolutions? In addition: electric cars cost more than normal cars, tofu doesn’t really taste like meat, and all too often we let influencers, for example, tempt us to buy more and more things. And even those who can afford a clean lifestyle, such as the electric car, are often reluctant to change anything. So far, only a fraction of the people in the rich industrial nations have given up Meat or air travel.

Mobility that is harmful to the climate: Air travel increases the CO2 footprint enormously

From a scientific point of view, however, it is necessary for us to change our way of life so that weather extremes How droughts and heat waves or heavy rainfall and Floods don’t make it worse. The good news is that targeted help from governments can make sustainable living cheaper and more practical.

In May, the environmental officers of the German government presented the ministers with a framework with proposals intended to help people in Germany to discard habits that are harmful to the climate and the environment. It is important to bundle measures and, above all, to offer incentives to make the sustainable options palatable.

“We can only stop the ecological crises if everyone makes their contribution,” says Annette Töller, who co-wrote the report. “Whether consumption, investments or leisure time, it is high time that politicians facilitated, promoted and – where necessary – demanded environmentally friendly behavior.”

The demand for climate-damaging products must fall

Half of the greenhouse gases emitted each year come from ten percent of the people. According to a study published last year in the journal Nature, people with an income of more than 37,200 euros fall into the group of those who live the most polluting lives. They include both the middle class in rich countries and rich people in poorer countries. Lifestyle changes play a big part in reducing their emissions.

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In its latest review of climate research, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that a reduction in energy demand could halve greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors by 2050 compared to today. One of the most effective measures to achieve this is therefore to refrain from using the use of airplanes and cars, switching to a plant-based diet and improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

In some ways we can actually lead a more climate-friendly lifestyle through our individual choices bring about – for example by going on vacation without having to travel long distances or by using plant-based products instead Meat and consume milk.

But in other cases, the climate-friendly options are often more expensive – or they are not available at all. Many people who live outside of cities have to drive to work because there are no bus or train connections. And not everyone can afford an electric car.

“It is important that governments help people to reduce their carbon footprint, otherwise it will be too much of a fight for too many,” said Stuart Capstick, deputy director of the Center for Climate Change & Social Transformations, a multi-British coalition universities. “The low-carbon option should always be an easy, normal and cheap option.”

How to promote environmentally friendly living

Some governments have already taken steps to promote an environmentally friendly lifestyle. In Austria, the government pays half of the repair costs for defective electronic devices. This is to avoid new purchases – and thus climate-damaging emissions during the manufacture and transport of new devices. In the first year of the program, more than half a million electrical devices were repaired – a quarter more than had been expected by the end of 2026, the Austrian Ministry of Climate reported in April.

In Belgium, trade unions and business groups have agreed that those who work with the bike to work drive – so far, there has been a subsidy for trips to work, especially if the car had to be used. In large Belgian companies, the proportion of bicycle commuters rose by a quarter to a good 14 percent between 2017 and 2021 as a result of the financial incentive, according to a study by the Belgian government. However, car use has hardly decreased.

In 2013, the Netherlands began raising taxes on natural gas – they are now 84 percent higher than they were then. At the same time, taxes on electricity were reduced by 25 percent, according to an analysis by the energy think tank Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) last year. The result: heat pumps – the one house heat clean but are more expensive to install – can now be used throughout their lifetime gas heaters compete.

A person walks past a poster drawing attention to air pollution from polluting coal heating in Poland

Air pollution in Poland: The promotion of climate-friendly heating also helps to reduce health damage caused by air pollution

Additional information campaigns would have to be run and training courses for installation companies, says Duncan Gibb, an expert on climate-friendly heating at RAP and co-author of the report. But for more clean heating, “subsidies that reduce initial costs and measures that make running costs comparatively cheaper, such as taxation and carbon prices – really important.”

What does individual action bring to climate protection?

In many industrialized nations, government measures that are intended to lead to more environmentally friendly decisions in everyday life often meet with resistance from politicians and the public. A key argument that keeps coming up is that governments should neither tell people what to do nor restrict their freedom.

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Here, according to Capstick, is the problem: governments don’t want to interfere with people’s freedoms, while citizens want governments to act first. “The result is a stalemate”.

Climate protection groups repeatedly criticize that the focus for environmentally and climate-friendly behavior is placed too much on individual decisions – large companies in particular pollute the environment heavily.

For example, energy companies such as British Petrol (BP) have been involved in developing the carbon footprint calculator for individuals, while at the same time investing more in oil and gas natural gas promoted and lobbied against policies designed to limit fossil fuel extraction.

Hamburger without meat: Vegan patties made from pea protein sizzle in a pan

Pea protein instead of meat: the more people do without animal products, the greater the range of vegetarian and vegan foods

However, science is wary of giving the individual a free pass per se – especially in wealthy countries, where just a handful of consumer choices can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by several tons per year. Because the advantages of these decisions are far-reaching: Buying climate-friendly products and renouncing environmentally harmful habits send signals to governments and companies that they should better address this target group in the future – be it that Veggie Burger taste better or cycle paths and public transport are expanded.

Above all, according to a study published in 2021 rich people also serve as role models and contribute to change at the ballot box, in investments or as entrepreneurs.

We need to adopt a ‘yes-and’ mentality when it comes to climate action,” says Kim Nicholas, climate scientist at Lund University in Sweden and co-author of the study. “Yes, governments and big companies may have more responsibility than I do – you can blame them accountable – and I have a responsibility to take action where I can.”

Editor: Tamsin Walker

Adaptation from English: Jeannette Cwienk

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