12 September 2014

Cutting carbon emissions can improve quality of life

A climatically sustainable lifestyle is compatible with modern living and perhaps even better quality of life. This is shown by a new report from Mistra Urban Futures that has also calculated the total emissions of carbon dioxide caused by Swedes.

Overall, Sweden is thought to have reduced its carbon footprint in the past few decades. But if counting consumption of imported products and international air travel as well, the figures are less flattering. In its report Low-carbon Gothenburg 2.0: Technological potentials and lifestyle changes, Mistra Urban Futures has worked out this country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a new way, including also the above-mentioned emission sources.

The scientists have also investigated what is required for us to keep global warming below the Government’s and UN’s 2°C limit. According to the latest expert advice, to achieve this we need to reduce emissions to two tonnes per person annually between now and 2050.

‘We’re showing what a sustainable lifestyle can be like, and this is our key contribution. There are many different notions about this. Some people think there’s no need to do anything and that technology will fix everything for us. But that’s not true. Others think a reduction would take us back to the 19th century, but that’s not true either. None of this is supported by our analyses. We can have a lifestyle like today’s, but modified,’ says Jörgen Larsson of Chalmers University of Technology.

Larsson wrote the report jointly with Lisa Bolin of SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden. Some of the average lifestyle changes needed if we are to limit emissions to a maximum of 2 tonnes per capita are:

  • Halved consumption of beef and pork
  • Air travel reduced to the year 2000 level
  • Service consumption 200% higher (at the expense of goods consumption)
  • Cut in working time to 30 hours a week.

The researchers outline a techno-optimist vision of the future, with massive efficiency gains in the energy sector, road traffic and air travel. Their analyses are based on previous research, but comprehensively address all categories of emissions.

‘We expect growth to continue as before, which will mean that consumption in the year 2050 will be twice as high as now, but through a rise in service consumption. Café and restaurant visits, training and educational courses, and so on have less impact on the climate than spending money on travel,’ Larsson points out.

A thousand inhabitants of West Sweden were also questioned about their consumption patterns and perceived personal wellbeing. The study shows that carbon emissions vary greatly from one person to another: from 4 to 15 tonnes a head. But eating a lot of red meat, flying a great deal or motoring on a large scale does not seem to make us happier. Instead, good health, a job, friends and a partner are what confer wellbeing.

‘A heavy impact on the climate has no payoff in terms of wellbeing. There, we confirm earlier research. But we haven’t investigated what happens to wellbeing if a single individual changes lifestyle, and we want to do that,’ Larsson adds.

The research was carried out in close collaboration with staff at the City of Gothenburg and the West Götaland region.

‘This has been a great success. We all have different knowledge, and the whole venture is a lot more interesting than it would have been if I’d done it alone at my desk,’ Larsson says.

Other activities at Mistra Urban Futures are under way at an Innovation Lab, a kind of think tank for developing ideas about forthcoming development of the Masthugget area in Gothenburg. Stakeholders from various arenas in society are to be consulted right from the planning stage. The Innovation Lab is part of a broader initiative to create innovation platforms, funded by the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems (VINNOVA), in which four cities (Gothenburg being one) will develop innovations relating to sustainable urban development.

Text: Thomas Heldmark, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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