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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 a new report from Ethical Consumer to help identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

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 new research finds that we are not moving fast enough in cutting our consumer emissions.

Our annual Climate Gap report tracks our collective progress towards sustainable consumer lifestyles in the UK and sets targets for cutting our emissions. This work provides a benchmark for individual and collective action across four key sectors - food, heating, transport and consumer goods - setting reduction targets for each.

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

Key consumer actions

The report found that across four key consumer areas - food, heating, transport and consumer goods - we are not cutting out emissions fast enough. In two of the areas, food and consumer goods, it found that we are in fact moving in the wrong direction: increasing rather than cutting emissions year-on-year.

In order to reverse these trends, consumer action on climate change is urgently required, along with government and business support. We have therefore 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.

Summary Report Card 2021

The report card below summarises our key findings from the 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 2021
  Food (26%) Heating (14%) Transport (25%)

Selected Consumer

Goods (10%)

Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (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

1% CO2e reduction 0% reduction 0.3% increase
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 15% still to reduce 22% still to reduce 17% still to reduce 41% still to reduce
Are we moving fast enough? Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Going in the wrong direction
What does government need to do? Use public procurement. Rebalance agricultural policy. Subsidise solutions. Provide clear framework. Halt airport expansion. Electric vehicle (EV) purchase subsidies. Require companies to report on their supply chain emissions.
What do companies need to do? Better impact labelling. More plant options on menus. Develop creative funding instruments. Address the skills gaps. Replace business travel with online working. Report annually on supply chain emissions.
What do consumers need to do? Reduce meat and dairy consumption by 20%. Reduce food waste. Insulate. Do smarter heating. Choose heat pumps where possible. Choose electric vehicles. Reduce air and road travel where possible. Increase repair and buying second hand. Choose sustainable brands.
Where are consumer intentions? 29-39% willing 19-50% willing 24-35% willing 28-70% willing

* in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

Key to tables: c. = circa or approximately CCC = Climate Change Committee

Key findings

1. We're not moving fast enough

As mentioned above, we're not moving fast enough in any of the consumer areas considered in the report, and for both food and consumer goods we actually appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

2. A sustainable lifestyle is not scary

The Climate Gap report is based on targets from the UK's Climate Change Committee, an independent body set up by the government in 2008. The future it maps out for 2030 currently looks like it only requires relavtively modest changes to the way we list now. Many of the main actions we have mapped out for reading these goals are starting to become familiar: cars and heating will need to be electrified, and we’ll need to reduce meat, dairy and other consumption to some degree. We’re planning to publish some more work on further prioritising consumer actions later this year.

However, for those who are able to go beyond these targets, it is important to do so, not least to balance out those who won’t or who are unable.

3. The necessary political engagement work looks harder

At Ethical Consumer we have long recognised that the decisions that consumers make, and around climate change particularly, very much depend on the frameworks that government and companies provide. We know that it is not particularly helpful to look at consumer choices or personal carbon footprints in isolation. Therefore, we have also looked at what companies and governments must do to support consumers in decarbonising their lifestyles.

It is the political work we need to do as citizens that looks harder than the consumer actions. The low-carbon lifestyle expert Mike Berners-Lee, when asked about the degree to which individuals should think about balancing the need to cut their own emissions with the need to take political action, suggested a roughly 60% to 40% split in favour of prioritising political action. UK citizens, campaigners and companies urgently need to build broad coalitions across all of the key impact areas identified in this report.

4. We need more information tracking consumer emissions

In order to create positive motivations to take action, feedback loops showing what impact we are collectively having (or not) are important. Yet, the quality of data out there is currently often poor. For example, the most recent firgures on meat consumption published by the government are from 2018-19.

We are therefore asking the government to consider working to address this area particularly. A dashboard of monthly-updated figures online would be a much-needed tool in this critical moment of climate emergency

5. Governments should make it mandatory for companies to report on their supply chain emissions

We are also asking governments to make it mandatory for all companies to report on their supply chain emissions by 2025. Although regulators are beginning to require companies to report on their own direct emissions, they are not yet requiring companies to do so for their supply chains. This is despite the evidence that often 80% of the emissions of consumer goods manufacture occurs here. It is hard to see how we can be sure that we are collectively on target on carbon reduction, particularly around the consumer goods impacts,
without this happening.

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 decarbonisation2. 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.

Download the full Climate Gap report

Download the full 40 page report as a PDF. The PDF version includes the evidence that sits behind all this information. We will be updating the report annually, to provide science-based targets for consumers each year.