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Climate gap report

We are not on track to meet international emissions reduction targets. So what is the gap between where we as consumers are and where we need to be? And what action must we take to address it?

Rob Harrison and Josie Wexler introduce introduce Ethical Consumer's second annual report: Closing the Climate Gap 2022: An annual report on progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK.

The next ten years will be critical in mitigating the worst impacts of climate breakdown. The UK has committed to reducing emissions to net zero by 2050 - crucial if we are to meet international targets on climate change.

If we are to meet this goal, our lifestyle emissions will need to be cut, alongside government and business action. Yet our research finds that we are still not moving fast enough in cutting our consumer emissions.

The Climate Gap Report 2022

Our Climate Gap reports track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030.

They include simplified lists of key actions for consumers, companies and governments. These appear across the report tables which are available on the separate sector pages for food, heating, transport and consumer goods. A summary table is below.

The 2022 Climate Gap report, free to download, contains more detail on the calculations we use and the reasons we have chosen particular indicators and goals.

Below, we summarise the climate gap (which is the gap between where we are now and where we need to be), provide targets for action, and ask: are we moving fast enough?

Key findings from the report

1. Transport emissions down

Transport emissions have been distorted by the pandemic. Emissions in 2021 were still well down on 2019 levels, but this is entirely due to the travel restrictions. This makes long term progress in transport hard to glean, but electric car registrations are on track. The position in our summary table below is unlikely to be the same next year!

2. Meat and dairy possibly on track

The UK Government's own Climate Change Committee (CCC), whose data we have used extensively in our reports, thinks that reduction in meat and dairy consumption is also on track, although the figures are a bit unclear. We discuss this more in the food section.

3. Home heating is still a car crash!

The UK is keeping up its tradition of doing very badly on heating. Insulation and heat pump installations need to speed up dramatically. There has also been a COVID-affected rise in home heating emissions. This is likely to change this winter as fuel prices impact, tragically, the poorest in our society most acutely.

4. Buying second hand and repairing on the rise

Our own survey data shows significant increases in buying second hand and repairing this year. In theory this should lead to real reductions in consumption of new goods, and feed through to reduced carbon figures in time, though this is not visible in the data yet.

5. Company carbon reporting is moving at pace

Proper reporting of full company emissions rose from 37% to 60% of the companies we surveyed this year. Whilst this is good, there are still critical issues with the quality of some of this reporting and little evidence that emissions reported are moving in the right direction at the right speed. What data we do have, which is old, shows emissions growth which is why the consumer goods sector is marked red.

6. Some possible food waste reductions

Research from WRAP suggests the pandemic also saw short-lived positive changes in household food waste, as people had more time to plan and prepare food. But there are no figures available for this since 2018, so we can’t report on this indicator this time.

7. We're not moving fast enough

Now that transport emissions are retuning to normal, UK consumption emissions reductions as a whole are not on track. This is not really news to anyone involved in climate campaigning and is true of wider UK emissions too.

8. The quality of data needs urgent attention

When we try to answer the climate gap question, we are finding that, in some cases, the best available data is three years old. It is not possible to manage an economy rationally towards urgent climate goals without meaningful and timely performance data. It is instructive to compare the resources the ONS has to produce (say) monthly inflation figures, with those it has for climate impact reports.

Other key management tools - like Home Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings – need urgent attention too, see the heating section.

Summary Report Card 2022

The report card below summarises our key findings from the 2022 report, across food, heating, transport and consumer goods, and covering around 75% of our collective total consumer emissions.

It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets in each of these areas, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take.

Summary Report Card 2022
  Food (26%) Heating (14%) Transport (25%)

Selected Consumer Goods (10%)

Consumer-related emissions reductions needed by 2030 in this scenario (from a 2019 baseline) c.15% CO2e reduction c.23% CO2e reduction c.17% CO2e reduction c.40% CO2e reduction
What reductions were achieved in the most recent year’s figures?

0% reduction

6% CO2e reduction 15% reduction 1.7% increase
The current climate gap. What is the remaining reduction needed? 15% still to reduce 23% still to reduce 2% still to reduce 40% still to reduce
Are we moving fast enough? No, but... No Yes, but... No, but...
What does government need to do? Rebalance agricultural policy Subsidise solutions Halt airport expansion Change company reporting law
What do companies need to do? More plant options on menus Develop creative funding Replace business travel Report supply chain emissions
What do consumers need to do? Reduce meat and dairy consumption by 20% Insulate; do smarter heating; choose heat pumps where possible Choose electric vehicles; reduce travel where possible Increase repair and buying second hand

c. = circa or approximately

Find out more about the different sectors explored in the climate gap report:

Pie chart: taking political action 60%; reducing your own emissions 40%
Balance of actions on climate between political and personal

Conclusions from the 2022 report

Overall our report provides some evidence that, even when you have a government which appears openly hostile to taking timely climate actions, external events (like the pandemic), and positive action from independent actors (like companies and consumers) can mean that progress is not always or entirely stalled.

Change does not exclusively happen in a top down way, and even the worst governments are constrained in what they can do by external events and external forces. This is a small comfort in difficult times.

It is not really news either that political action by citizens/consumers remains as critical as ever. Last year we quoted Mike Berners-Lee who felt that the balance between politics and consumption should be around 60 to 40 as represented in the diagram.

This is why we list actions for governments and companies in our reports. Obviously consumers can encourage actions that move towards these goals amongst others they are working towards.

This feature is an extract from our longer 2022 Report which has more details and references and which will appear on our website from October 18th.

We'll also have an online 'launch' session to discuss and reflect with readers on the Report in our 2022 conference week.

Key consumer actions

The report found that across four key consumer areas - food, heating, transport and consumer goods - we are not cutting emissions fast enough.

Action on climate change is urgently required and we have highlighted ten key actions to aim for:

  1. Reduce meat consumption by 20%
  2. Reduce dairy consumption by 20%
  3. Reduce food waste
  4. Insulate our homes
  5. Do smarter heating
  6. Choose heat pumps where possible
  7. Choose electric vehicles
  8. Reduce air and road travel where possible
  9. Increase repair and buying second hand
  10. Choose sustainable brands

We explore each of these actions further on our food, heating, transport and consumer goods pages.

Handy advice on climate actions you can take

We are creating series of articles highlighting actions you can take for the climate on the areas of food, heating, transport and consumer goods - see the links below

Download the full Climate Gap report

2022 report - open the report as a PDF

2021 report - open the report as a PDF

The full reports include the evidence that sits behind the information.

What is the Climate Change Committee?

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) was set up under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise UK governments on decarbonisation. It is an independent body comprised mainly of economists and environmental experts and its main role is to report to Parliament annually on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is a bit like SAGE, the group of scientific advisors that has become well known during the pandemic, in that they both issue politely exasperated reports about the need to take urgent action in key areas.

We have used the CCC's data to define our targets for food, transport and heating. For the fourth impact area, consumer goods, we have conducted our own research and extrapolated targets and campaigns from elsewhere.

There are many roads up the mountain

There is no single route to decarbonisation. We are using the ‘Balanced Scenario’ produced by the CCC for many of our targets, because it is comprehensive, based on thorough up-to-date research, and gives consumers an idea of the direction we need to be headed in. It is for this reason that we are describing this report as containing ‘science-based targets’ for consumers. However, there are plenty of arguments to be had with the CCC’s scenario – in particular that it does not cut fast enough –, which we discuss in the report.

However, we are currently a long way from meeting even these targets. Therefore, we felt that they made sense to use in the first instance.

We would like to express gratitude to the Ecology Building Society for its sponsorship of the 2022 Climate Gap Report.

Ecology Building Society logo