Climate: Better understand demand-side solutions

Behavior, lifestyles and social norms have a major impact on emissions. Climate research should learn more about this so-called “demand-side”, writes MCC’s Felix Creutzig in “Nature Climate Change”.

Consumption, behavior, lifestyles, social norms, coal exit

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The extent to which consumption, behavior and individual lifestyles can contribute to saving greenhouse gases is not very well understood. Climate research has—for the most part—examined the conditions under which low-carbon technologies can prevail. In future, research on this this so-called “supply side” should be complemented by a stronger focus on demand-side solutions. This is the recommendation by a team of scientists led by Felix Creutzig, group leader at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC). The demand side will also play a greater role in the forthcoming Sixth IPCC Assessment Report, which will—for the first time—dedicate an entire chapter to this topic. The team of researchers has published their corresponding comment in the renowned journal “Nature Climate Change”.

The lack of research synthesis and comprehensive understanding of demand-side solutions is unfortunate as they often entail fewer environmental risks than many supply side technologies. A good example for these supply-side risks is bioenergy: Compared to using fossil fuels, this method saves carbon emissions. However, the cultivation of biomass also consumes large areas of land, which then cannot be used for other purposes such as growing food or housing.

“We need a comprehensive assessment of the underlying science of demand-side approaches for climate change mitigation,” says lead author Creutzig. “This requires research synthesis across a wide range of disciplines— such as economics, sociology and psychology, as well as, for example, engineering, geography and marketing. We must understand why certain patterns of consumption and behaviors prevail and on what norms, values and preferences they are based."

As a common framework for enabling transdisciplinary collaboration, discussions and research, the authors suggest the so-called ASI (Avoid-Shift-Improve) approach. This framework enables the categorization and comparison of policy options, which can lead to cross-sectoral learning. Taking the transport sector as an example, traffic can be avoided through intelligent urban planning or increased tele-working. By means of expanding public transportation, traffic can be shifted to climate-friendly means of transport. And by using more electric vehicles, for example, private traffic can be improved in terms of emissions.

“However, supply-side solutions for climate change mitigation remain the key component of both our research at the MCC and the IPCC,” emphasizes MCC Director Ottmar Edenhofer. “This applies particularly to reducing the burning of fossil fuels. A rapid coal phase-out is crucial for keeping the door to the 2°C target open.”

According to Edenhofer, policy makers should implement internationally coordinated carbon prices and promote structural change of coal regions, for example in Germany. “The demand side could support this development,” says the MCC Director. “Matching energy demand with the fluctuating supply of wind and solar power can accelerate the phasing out of coal.”


More information:

F. Creutzig, J. Roy, W. F. Lamb, I. M. L. Azevedo, W. Bruine de Bruin, H. Dalkmann, O. Y. Edelenbosch, F. W. Geels, A. Grubler, C. Hepburn, E. G. Hertwich, R. Khosla, L. Mattauch, J. C. Minx, A. Ramakrishnan, N. D. Rao, J. K. Steinberger, M. Tavoni, D. Ürge-Vorsatz, E. U. Weber. Towards demand-side solutions for mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 8, 268–271 (2018)