Cold choices for a warming planet

A new study from Finland and Japan lays out the massive extent to which our lifestyles need to change if we are to slow down global warming.
Michael Lettenmeier/photo: Sanna Lehto
Post-doc researcher Michael Lettenmeier has been teaching sustainable product and service design at Finnish universities for more than 20 years. Photo: Sanna Lehto

When the countries of the world came together in Paris in 2015 to build consensus on climate change, they collectively agreed to pursue measures that would limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since then, much of the research into how countries can meet this target has focused on sustainable energy production, re-forestation, and technologies for carbon capture. Very little has been done to address the 1.5-degree target at the level of the individual; to provide people with insights into what changes they should make in their own lives to limit their carbon footprints.

A new report entitled 1.5 Degree Lifestyles is addressing this gap in climate change knowledge. Jointly prepared by Aalto University and the Institute for Global Environmental Studies in Japan, the report provides per capita carbon footprints in several example countries, and makes proposals on the lifestyle changes needed if the temperature target is to be met.

Comprehensive data sets fornutrition, housing and mobility illustrate the massive carbon impact of these three areas, and the equally massive reductions that must take place by 2030. In developed countries – where carbon footprints are the largest – the impact of nutrition needs to be reduced by at least 47%, housing by 68% and mobility by 72%. The reductions needed by 2050 are even higher.

Deep insights, immediate results

The project to create the report was led by post-doc researcher Michael Lettenmeier, who has been teaching sustainable product and service design at Finnish universities for more than 20 years.

"We went through the existing climate change scenarios – of which there are hundreds – and noticed that most of the studies are related to technologies for reducing carbon impact. So we tried find out what the 1.5-degree target means in terms of lifestyles," says Lettenmeier. "I believe this study is a world first in terms of demonstrating the actions that need to be taken at the household level in order to meet the target."

"In earlier projects, we found that when we show people their impact and what they can do to change it, then they're immediately able to cut their footprints by tens of percents."

In one such project, Lettenmeier and his team created for The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra an online tool that people in Finland are now using to calculate their carbon footprint (defined as the amount of consumption multiplied by its carbon intensity). With short multiple choice questions on housing, transport, food consumption and more, the tool quickly reveals the impact of an individual's lifestyle choices, and recommends around 50 footprint-reducing actions out of a list of 100. To date, the calculator has been used by over 600,000 people – more than 10% of Finland's population.

Cutting down on meat and mobility

Lettenmeier's team kicked off some of the background work for 1.5 Degree Lifestyles through a project with five households in Jyväskylä, a small city in central Finland.

"We helped five families to measure their carbon and material footprints, and then we co-created a reduction roadmap for each up to 2030," he says. "On the basis of a one-month experimentation phase, we were surprised at how quickly the households were able to start coming close to their 2030 targets."

"Consumption of meat and dairy products account for more than two thirds of the average carbon footprint for nutrition in Finland, so we placed a lot of emphasis on changing eating habits during the experiments. One family tried vegan nutrition, while another family tried eating non-meat meals every second day."

The international data the team has collected comes to life in 1.5 Degree Lifestyles through a set of infographics for five different countries. The researchers illustrate the carbon footprints and targets of average households in the key domains of mobility, housing and nutrition for Finland, Japan, China, India and Brazil. 

carbon footprint
Comparative lifestyle carbon footprints and targets are provided for Finland, Japan, China, Brazil and India.

The report also reveals the extent to which the carbon impact of meat and dairy are disproportionate to the actual amount consumed. In Finland, for example, meat represents only 9% of the average diet (measured by kilograms consumed), while accounting for 37% of the average carbon footprint. Dairy products represent 21% of the average diet, yet account for 36% of the footprint.

The report illustrates the massive and disproportionate carbon impact of meat and dairy consumption.
The report illustrates the massive and disproportionate carbon impact of meat and dairy consumption.

"We should probably not eat meat more than once per week, but in Finland we consume more meat and dairy per capita than in any of the other countries we studied," says Lettenmeier.

"We could shift our beef and cheese consumption to other sources of protein. Again, there is a lot we can do starting at home here in Finland, where we consume only about one kilogram of beans and a few kilograms of peas per capita per year. In Brazil, the average citizen consumes 70 kilograms of beans per year!"

More of one, less of another

The report lays bare the areas in which consumption patterns need to change – especially in the developed world – if we are to meet the 1.5-degree climate target. The data also reveal the various choices and trade-offs that people need to make.

"Taking the example of Finland again, we see that mobility is extremely high here, at an average of more than 16,000 kilometres travelled per person each year. Most of this is from car use, with flying in second place," says Lettenmeier.

"In order to meet the 1.5-degree target, the average Finn needs to travel 10,000 kilometres less each year and reduce average carbon intensity to that of a bus, or to that of the electric cars used in Norway and Iceland that run entirely on renewables."

"Trains are a great source of underused potential in Finland, especially as they mostly run on renewables," he says. "Looking at Japan, we see that the biggest share of the footprint is also from cars, but trains are used much more there than in Finland."

"It's all about choices though, and this is what the report demonstrates too. We could have a higher footprint in mobility, for instance, but then we need to reduce our footprint for nutrition and housing even further than suggested by the report."

To achieve the temperature target, there is an urgent need to both reduce the amount we travel and increase its efficiency.
To achieve the temperature target, there is an urgent need to both reduce the amount we travel and increase its efficiency.

Walking the talk

Lettenmeier himself is doing everything he can to minimize his own impact. He owns no car, and his family lives in a home about half the size of the average for Finland. He also has a green electricity contact, and consumes low amounts of meat and dairy.

While he encourages other individuals to become aware of the issue and make the necessary lifestyle changes, Lettenmeier says there is an urgent need for critical policy level changes too.

"Lifestyles need to change, but this issue cannot be solved at the household level alone," he says. "Often, even when we want to consume sustainably we are not able to, as there is a lot of established infrastructure dragging us in the other direction. So it's as much an issue of governments and businesses establishing ways to enable 1.5 degree lifestyles."

"In Finland, our average carbon footprint needs to be 12 percent smaller each year, and to achieve the 1.5 degree target we need an average adoption rate among citizens of 75% - no matter what trade-offs are made. We have about a 10-year period in which to achieve this, so we need to make immediate changes in politics and business."

Read more

Lifestyle Test - how much carbon do YOU use?

[PDF] The 1.5 Degree Lifestyles report

Finland will present its exhibition Everyday Experiments at the XXII Triennale di Milano from 1 March to 1 September this year, featuring twelve experimental projects people are already doing to make their lives more sustainable and equitable. La Triennale di Milano will take place from 1 March to 1 September 2019 and is curated by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design and Director of Research & Development at The Museum of Modern Art. Broken Nature will reflect on the relationship between humans and environments at all scales—from the microbiome to the cosmos—including social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.

 Learn more about all 12 Everyday Experiments:

The XXII Triennale, Broken Nature:

  • Published:
  • Updated:

Read more news

Lara Ejtehadian, Patrick Rinke, and Ilari Lähteenmäki sitting with coffee mugs and smiling to the camera.
Awards and Recognition, Research & Art Published:

Aalto Open Science Award Winner 2023 - Aalto Materials Digitalization Platform (AMAD)

We interviewed the AMAD team, winners of the first Aalto Open Science Award.
People at the campus
Cooperation, Research & Art Published:

Aalto University to host CESAER Task Force Openness of Science and Technology

Aalto University is proud to host the CESAER Task Force Openness of Science and Technology on 16–17 April 2024.
Otaniemi seafront pictured in the summer with the Aalto logo and event title, and VTT and Open Science logos overlayed.
Campus, Cooperation, Research & Art Published:

Open Science and Research Summer Conference 2024 will be hosted by Aalto University

Aalto University is co-organising the Open Science and Research Summer Conference 2024 with the National Coordination of Open Science and Research, and VTT.
Two hexagonal arrays of prisms with a blue lattice inbetween.
Research & Art Published:

New quantum entangled material could pave way for ultrathin quantum technologies

Researchers reveal the microscopic nature of the quantum entangled state of a new monolayer van der Waals material