In order to save the planet, Lloyd Alter has a succinct message for us all to live by.
“Don’t eat red meat, don’t drive, live in a small space, don’t get in a plane and stop buying so much shit.”
Alter teaches sustainable design at Ryerson and lives what he calls a 1.5-degree lifestyle in downtown Toronto in an attempt to drastically reduce his carbon footprint. He documented his experience in his book Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle.
The book’s title refers to the target the international community set in 2015 to reduce global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Under the Paris climate agreement, countries committed to trying to meet the target by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the ways Alter tried to track his own carbon footprint — or how much greenhouse gas is generated by daily activities — was to calculate his emission cost for an order from Swiss Chalet. He said he analyzed the emissions created to raise the chicken, run the store, make the packaging, deliver it to his house and any other contributing factors.
“What I found throughout the whole exercise was that it’s the delivery that totally killed it,” he said. “Getting a really good handle on what your carbon footprint is in many things is really hard. But what you do find very quickly, is the things that really make a huge impact. And that is cars.”
That’s an observation that would resonate with Ria Bhalla, a second-year creative industries student, who made a change when she moved to Toronto to attend school. She said she chose not to bring her car because she has access to the TTC.
“It really does help the environment when not everybody owns a car and when we have these community resources that we can use,” she said.
Prior to coming to Toronto, Bhalla said she drove often because she didn’t have good public transportation in her hometown.
To stay under 1.5 C of warming, the world has a carbon emissions budget target of 25 gigatonnes in 2030.
“If you divide that by the world’s population, the result is roughly 3.4 tonnes per person per year,” Alter wrote. “Multiply that by 72 per cent (the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from household consumption) and you get a 2030 target lifestyle footprint of 2.5 tonnes of [carbon dioxide equivalent] CO2e per person per year. That’s the 1.5-degree lifestyle.
“Lifestyle emissions are not just individual but the things that we share a piece of, from how we organize our society and our institutions,” wrote Alter.
Alter says when looking at the categories with the highest carbon footprint, the easiest changes students can make that have the biggest impacts are cutting out red meat, not using private car transportation and buying less stuff.
Eating a locally sourced, plant-based diet and limiting private car transportation are two of the changes recommended by the new report from the Hot or Cool Institute, published in October.
Canada has the highest average lifestyle carbon footprint per year of the countries analyzed in this report, with the highest categories of use being transportation and housing.
High-income countries will have to make the most significant lifestyle changes in order to meet the Paris target. These countries, including Canada, will need to reduce lifestyle footprints by 91 to 95 per cent. Middle-income countries will only need to reduce their footprints by 68 to 86 per cent, according to the report.
Many people don’t consider the amount of emissions that are involved in the production of items, Alter said.
He explained that people often think electric cars are the answer to environmentally friendly transportation, but forget about the “upfront” carbon cost. He said most people are only thinking about energy consumption, not the carbon used in both production and consumption.
He said it takes about 14 tonnes of carbon to make a Tesla, which is nearly seven years of a person’s carbon budget.
“It’s a fantasy that electric cars and trucks are going to save us because when you’re talking carbon, the upfront carbon is as or more important than the operating carbon because it’s going into the air right now,” he said.
According to the report from the Hot or Cool Institute, building infrastructure that promotes lower-carbon lifestyle habits is a crucial responsibility of the governments of the major industrialized countries, including Canada.
Bella Alcántara, a fourth-year architecture student, says one thing Canada could do is promote eating plant-based diets and ensure equal access to these types of foods.
The government already incentivizes taking the TTC or drinking Canadian dairy so they could do the same thing to shift food consumption, says Alcántara.
She says she switched to a vegan diet to reduce her carbon footprint. “Accessibility to plant-based options is definitely a privilege though,” she said.
Protein-dense vegan options like Beyond Meat and other meat substitutes can be expensive, she explained.
The Hot or Cool Insitute calls this the “lock-in effect,” when a consumer does not have a choice in a more sustainable option.
In Toronto, this could be the result of a lack of TTC access in suburbs or only having expensive grocery stores or convenience stores in your neighbourhood.
That’s why, Alter said, we have to, “vote with our wallets and vote with our feet.”
Alter said it’s important people vote for candidates who support climate action and sustainable policy. But he said that none of the parties, not even the Green Party, is suggesting the big scale changes the world needs.
“We have to get more seriously radical to convince them that the needle has to move,” he said.
Alter referenced a group called Insulate Britain whose members are being arrested for blocking the roads in protest of a lack of action from the British government.
Insulate Britain is asking the British government to fully fund the proper insulation of all social housing. They’re also asking that all homes in Britain be insulated and transitioned to low-energy, low-carbon living spaces. This is part of a larger transition to lower emissions for the country.
The Hot or Cool report notes that personal transportation, diet and housing footprints are the three categories most crucial for Canada.
“The emissions share of the top one per cent highest income earners is greater than the total emissions of the bottom 50 per cent combined — and may be twice as high,” the report reads.
Western countries like Canada have far higher carbon emissions than countries in the global South, so the responsibility of these countries to change their lifestyles is more pressing, making this a controversial report, Alter wrote.
The responsibility of the “polluter elite” to reduce their carbon footprint is even higher, the report notes.
The polluter elite are the wealthiest individuals whose net worth, lifestyle and political influence mainly rest on wealth that is derived from investments in polluting activities.
“The 80 million richest people around the world are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions from their consumption and their investments than the poorest four billion,” the report says.