Environment | Topics

Climate change: what consumers can do, what governments need to do

By : Julie Barlow
Photo credit : Mert Guller

Consumers hear a lot about how to fight climate change, but what can they actually do? A new report reveals what individuals can do to save the planet, and what governments need to do to help them.

Finally, some good news about climate change. In a report called Climate Change: the role of consumers, researchers from the Quebec consumer rights group Union des consommateurs note that most consumers are willing to change their lifestyle to reduce their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Among other studies, the authors quote an OECD survey of 12,000 respondents in 11 countries that found 80% of Canadians were willing to make sacrifices to save the planet.

The positive findings were the starting point for a study looking at what consumers can actually do to reduce their GHG emissions. “We looked at the information consumers are getting in the media, and from there, we evaluated what consumers can actually do in their daily lives,” says Élisabeth Gibeau, a social policy and fiscal analyst and co-author of the study.

Climate Change: the role of consumers reveals that household consumption accounts for between 60 and 75% of planetary GHG emissions. After reviewing an array of studies by environmental groups, universities and governments, Gibeau and co-authors Catherine Brown and Nikolas Barry-Shaw concluded that individual consumers’ largest carbon footprint lies in three sectors: food, transport and housing.

Within these categories, the three most effective actions consumers can take to reduce GHG emissions are: stop driving cars, forego air travel and reduce meat consumption by eating a diet based on vegetable proteins.


The case against meat

As the report shows, the case for reducing meat consumption is clear. Among many studies, the authors quote one from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stating that raising livestock accounts for 14.5% of all GHG emissions generated by humans (food production generates 26% of emissions overall). No less than 61% of livestock emissions come from raising cattle, including 20% for milk. (Pork accounts for 9% and chicken and eggs for 8% of GHG emissions for livestock.)

The message for consumers is clear. A study from Johns Hopkins University reports that consumers could reduce their GHG emissions by 7.4 gigatonnes by 2050 by eating 75% less meat and dairy. That amount is the equivalent of all GHG emissions from transportation (7 gigatonnes).

Yet the study’s authors discovered that governments are doing little, if anything, to encourage consumers to forego meat.

We didn’t find a single government policy encouraging consumers to eat vegetable proteins instead of animal proteins.”

Elisabeth Gibeau, analyst at Union des consommateurs who cl-authored the study

Among other recommendations, the authors endorse those made by Oxford University environmental researcher Joseph Poore, who argues that foods should have obligatory labels indicating their environmental footprint.


New Transportation Habits

GHG emissions from the transport sector are the second highest source of GHG emissions in Canada, accounting for 24% of total emissions in 2017, and that figure is rising:  between 1990 and 2017, emissions from transport increased by 43%, a jump explained largely by growing sales of transport trucks as well as light trucks and SUVs. “The principal recommendation we saw in all sources was for people to use public transport,” says Gibeau. Research shows that by using public transport instead of a car to commute (an average of 32 kilometres per day, five days a week) households can reduce their carbon footprint by 8.1% (compared to, say, 1.2% for insulating an attic).

Reducing air traffic is also within consumers’ reach. Climate Change quotes predictions by the European Commission that if the current momentum continues, distances travelled by air will increase 222% by 2035. GHG emissions associated with air travel will increase by 152%. The authors found that environmental groups unanimously agreed on a simple solution: people should take holidays closer to home. One research source concluded that the environmental impact of choosing the train could be 45 times smaller than air travel.

Yet again, the report’s authors argue that consumers need more support from governments to reduce GHG emissions from transport.

Governments are responsible for most of the actions that give consumers choice, like increasing public transport and controlling urban sprawl.”

Elisabeth Gibeau

Governments need to get serious

At the moment, Canada’s federal and provincial governments have a poor record when it comes to helping consumers fight climate change. The authors quote an international report showing that Canadians make the most car trips per inhabitant in urban areas on the planet. In Quebec, only 14% of those who commuted to work five days a week used public transport in 2016, with the vast majority of workers in the province (78%) still using individual cars.

The report criticizes governments at all levels for not doing enough to reduce the number of cars on the roads or the distances people drive, beyond passing laws on fuel efficiency. The authors note that in the 2019 budgets of Canada’s provincial and federal governments, funding for public transport is stagnant.

The federal government is also failing to help consumers reduce air travel. While different environmental experts have suggested imposing carbon taxes on flights, or penalties after a certain number of flights, the Canadian government is encouraging tourism and the emergence of an industry offering low-cost flights. Only two G7 countries lack a national high-speed train system: Canada and the United States.

As the report shows, consumers’ ability to reduce their carbon footprint in areas like housing and investment is even more limited. Consumers could theoretically switch to a renewable heating source, have an energy efficiency evaluation of their home done, put in new insulation or install a better furnace or air-conditioning system, but these actions are too costly for most Canadians. The federal government offers no support programs for consumers who want to retrofit or use renewable energy in homes. Doug Ford’s government in Ontario has cancelled most of the province’s energy efficiency programs. The Quebec government also offers little to consumers: the cost of retrofitting can be as high as $14,500, but the maximum financial aid available for a bungalow is $1,925.

When it comes to making environmentally responsible investments – another field where consumers could theoretically make a difference – the authors conclude that it’s not easy for consumers. Information about environmentally responsible investments on the websites of financial institutions fails to inform potential investors what the real content of the funds actually is.

In a 2015 survey, the Union des consommateurs found that 48% of Canadians believed the government was the most important actor in the fight against climate change and felt the government should pass new regulations and set new standards to fight climate change. “Governments still have a lot to do to make it possible for individual consumers to take effective action against climate change,” says Gibeau.

The Union des consommateurs recommends that the Canadian government create an independent institute that can provide clear, neutral information on the carbon footprint and environmental impact of household items. “At the moment, consumers hear about best practices from different lobbies. The information is contradictory and leaves people confused and sceptical,” says Gibeau.


Affluent consumers bear more responsibility

Yet government inaction is not the only obstacle to consumer action. The authors of the report conclude that Canada’s most affluent consumers bear extra responsibility in the fight against climate change.

Higher-income households spend extra income on activities that contribute to global warming, like air travel, while average- and low-income households spend their money on essential goods.”

Elisabeth Gibeau

UN studies show that when household revenue doubles, GHG emissions rise by 81%.


So there’s good news and bad news: consumers can play an important role in reducing Canada’s GHG emissions. But for that to happen, both the government and the country’s big spenders have to take the challenge seriously.

The study

The Climate Change: the role of consumers (Union des consommateurs, June 2019) study looks at what individual consumers can do to fight climate change and the role governments need to play to help consumers. “It’s in the interest of all Canadian citizens to help reduce GHG emissions. As consumers, we have an important role to play,” says report co-author Élisabeth Gibeau.

The authors consulted research by environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Équiterre and Greenpeace, as well as government and university research from North America and Europe. The sources showed households have the biggest carbon footprint in the areas of food consumption, transportation and housing.

They proposed concrete actions consumers can take in these fields, as well as housing and investment. The study found that while consumers were willing to make changes, their choices were hampered by government inaction in legislation, regulation and investment.