How can governments help people cut their carbon footprint?
People in rich countries can lead clean lives quicker if governments make it easy for them to ditch dirty habits
Some of the most powerful tools to stop the planet heating mean upending the way we eat, heat, move and shop.
But lifestyle changes that cut demand for polluting products have, for the most part, proved a hard sell. Electric cars cost more than regular ones. Tofu tastes less like meat than steak. Influencers keep pushing people to buy more things.
And even those who can access and afford clean lifestyles are often reluctant to make changes. Movements to give up meat and flights have convinced only a fraction of people in rich countries, though they have encouraged others to cut down.
Targeted help from governments can make cleaner ways of living both cheaper and more practical — something scientists say is crucial for encouraging the lifestyle shifts needed to stop extreme weather getting worse. In May, environmental advisors to the German government presented ministers a framework to help citizens ditch dirty habits. It highlights the importance of bundling measures and offering incentives to make clean options palatable to the public.
"We can only stop ecological crises if everyone contributes," said Annette Töller, who co-wrote the report. "Whether consumption, investments or leisure, it is high time that politicians ease, support and — where necessary — demand environmentally-friendly behavior."
Cutting demand for dirty products
Half the greenhouse gases spewed each year come from the 10% of people leading the most polluting lives, according to a study published in the journal Nature last year. People earning salaries above €37,200 ($40,800) fall into this bracket — which includes middle-class people in rich countries as well as rich people in poorer countries.
Lifestyle changes play an important role in cutting their emissions. In its latest review of climate research, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found measures to cut demand for energy can halve greenhouse gas emissions in some sectors by 2050 compared to business-as-usual. Some of the most powerful actions include avoiding planes and cars, shifting to a plant-based diet and improving the energy efficiency of a home.
In some cases, clean lifestyles can be achieved by individual choices alone – taking holidays closer to home or swapping meat for legumes as a protein source. But in others, the climate-friendly option often costs more — or isn't even on the table. Lots of people who live outside of cities, for instance, are forced to drive to work because there are no bus routes or train connections. Only some of them can afford an electric car.
"It's essential that governments help people cut their carbon footprints, otherwise doing so will be an uphill battle for too many people," said Stuart Capstick, deputy head of the Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations, a partnership between several British universities. "The low-carbon option should be the easy, normal and cost-effective option."
Supporting cleaner lifestyles
Some governments have taken steps to make cleaner lifestyles easier.
In Austria, the government pays half the cost of repairing broken electronic devices to discourage people buying new ones. In the first year of the scheme more than half a million electrical goods have been repaired — a quarter more than they had expected by the end of 2026, the climate ministry said in April.
In Belgium, trade unions and business groups have agreed to pay people more to cycle to work. It is similar to many schemes where companies subsidize their employees' car travel. The share of Belgian workers at big companies who cycle to work rose by a quarter between 2017 and 2021, to a total of 14.1%, according to a study from the Belgian government's transport service. Car use, though, fell little.
Bigger but less visible shifts are also helping. Since 2013, the Netherlands has raised taxes on fossil gas 84% and cut them on electricity 25%, according to an analysis from the energy think tank Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) last year. The result is that heat pumps — which can heat a home cleanly but cost more to install — can now compete with gas boilers over their lifetime.
Heating experts stress this is just one part of the solution and needs to go hand-in-hand with other fixes, like campaigns to raise awareness of heat pumps and training programs for the workers needed to install them.
"There really is no silver bullet here," said Duncan Gibb, a clean heat analyst at RAP and co-author of the report. But to help people heat more cleanly, "policies that lower upfront cost — generous subsidies — and make operating costs comparatively cheaper — taxation and carbon pricing — are really important."
In many rich countries, efforts to help people make cleaner choices have faced pushback from politicians and the public. A key argument is that governments should not tell people what to do or restrict their freedom.
There's a paradox here, said Capstick, where governments insist they can't interfere with people's freedom while the public says the government needs to act first. "What we have as a result is a stalemate."
Climate activists have also criticized a focus on individual choices while big companies pollute more. They have highlighted the role that energy companies like BP have played in promoting the idea of a personal carbon footprint while drilling for more oil and lobbying against policies that would cut fossil fuel production.
Scientists are wary of giving individuals a free pass, particularly in rich countries where a handful of consumption choices can shrink a person's carbon footprint by several tons a year. They also stress that the benefits stretch beyond individual savings. Buying low-carbon products and ditching polluting habits sends a signal to companies and governments to appeal to that audience — for instance, by making veggie burgers taste better or building more bike lanes. According to a study published in 2021, rich people can make an outsize difference not just as consumers, but also as role models, voters, investors and professionals.
"We need to get to a 'yes, and' mindset with climate action," said Kim Nicholas, a climate scientist at Lund University in Sweden and co-author of the study. "Yes, governments and big companies may have more responsibility than me — to which citizens can hold them accountable — and I also have responsibility to take action where I can."