Cross Country Checkup

Government policy can limit climate change — but so can changing your shopping habits, say experts

It's often said that personal choices have little effect on reducing carbon emissions because emissions from global corporations, such as fossil fuel producers, make up the majority of CO2 output. But experts argue that reducing personal consumption should be a priority.

‘Just make everything last longer and buy less,’ says sustainable design Prof. Lloyd Alter

Experts say that reducing consumption can have a significant impact on personal carbon footprints. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

While advocates call on governments to make stronger commitments to fight climate change, living a low-carbon lifestyle can help reduce individual impact on the planet, according to experts. 

It's often said that personal choices have little effect on reducing carbon emissions because emissions from global corporations, such fossil fuel producers, make up the majority of CO2 output. Lloyd Alter calls that thinking a "fantasy."

"What are the fossil fuel companies doing? They're making stuff that we buy to put in our cars. We're buying what they're selling," said Alter, a professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University and author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle.

"I believe that in all kinds of these exercises that it really comes down to our personal choices."

Almost 200 countries accepted a proposed climate agreement at COP26 on Saturday, despite concerns over last-minute amendments by India on coal emissions that some say will make it harder to reach goals set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015. 

Delegates are shown talking during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 13. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Many have argued that the scale of climate change requires systemic change, rather than simply a focus on individual decisions.

Alter argues that while governments play a role in certain policies, such as transit and urban planning, consumers can shop their way out of a warming climate.

"You can buy a low-carbon diet, you can buy a low-carbon house and you can buy low-carbon transportation — and it's absolutely, fundamentally, a matter of the choices that we make," Alter said.

Hard to reduce emissions without reducing consumption

J.B. MacKinnon, a journalist and author of the book The Day the World Stops Shopping, says there's an urgent need to not only "green consumption", but reduce it.

"The planet really clearly needs us to stop consuming so much, and yet the economy seems to need us to consume more and more," he said. 

Producing goods leaves a significant footprint. According to figures from Apple, 84 per cent of total carbon emissions for an iPhone 13 Pro occur in its production. Over its lifetime, using that same iPhone accounts for 12 per cent of overall emissions.

"Climate change is really a clear example, historically, of how effective it can be to reduce consumption and how difficult it has proven to be to reduce emissions without reducing consumption," McKinnon said.

Adria Vasil, managing editor of Corporate Knights magazine, says government subsidies can help those who rely on cars switch to more sustainable vehicles. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Since the Second World War, global carbon emissions have only dropped during periods of reduced consumption, such as during economic recessions and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Amid a sharp drop in economic activity and travel due to the global health crisis, carbon dioxide emissions dropped by more than six per cent in 2020. 

While the idea of consumers making more environmentally-friendly choices is welcome, Adria Vasil, managing editor of the sustainable economy magazine Corporate Knights, says government intervention is also needed.

"I have shifted my own attention to putting pressure on corporations and the largest emitters and governments to go greener and commit to more aggressive climate action," she said.

"We obviously can make a difference with the choices we make, but I don't want people to feel like the blame is on them."

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Decarbonize all industries

Vasil, who says she doesn't eat red meat and limits her consumption of other meats and dairy, says in a country such as Canada, which is geographically vast, personal vehicles and flying can be necessary given the great distances and lack of alternatives, such as high-speed rail networks

"We have to look at systemic pollution and how do we get the airlines to green their aviation fleet fuel? How do we get all of our industries to decarbonize rapidly?" she said.

Similarly, people who rely on cars, especially people who live outside major cities, need access to subsidies that make alternatives to fossil fuel-powered cars affordable.

Lloyd Alter, a professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University, says making cycling infrastructure a priority in cities can help reduce the need for personal vehicles. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But Alter says a sustainable lifestyle is one that keeps everything close to home — and meets global warming targets set in the Paris Agreement for the end of the decade.

"If you live in an apartment in downtown Toronto and you don't have a car and you shop at the local grocery store ... you're probably pretty close to living the kind of lifestyle that we have to do in 2030," he said.

That would mean reducing suburban living that requires starting up the car to pick up milk or take children to school, and prioritizing mobility via bike and public transit.

And when it comes to consumption, Alter says now is the time to reconsider our buying habits.

"Just make everything last longer and buy less."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.

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