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Dr Angela Druckman and Dr Tim Jackson report on their study that looked into how much carbon we need for a decent life.

Current lifestyles in the UK are unsustainable and policy-makers are struggling to find ways to shift society to lower carbon modes of living. Although technology will certainly play a role, changes in behaviours and lifestyles will also be required. A key question is, can carbon emissions be reduced without jeopardising our quality of life? If so, what might lifestyles look like, and what contribution, if any, would diets make to cuts in carbon emissions?

To answer these questions we set up a study to explore how carbon emissions due to UK lifestyles might be reduced while maintaining a decent life. The study took its starting point from some work carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) which established the basket of expenditures deemed necessary to enjoy a minimum acceptable standard of living [1]. The JRF research defined a minimum acceptable standard of living to include, ‘more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.'

The JRF expenditure budgets indicate which normal UK household expenditures we should aim to protect if we want a decent life and which might be considered ‘unnecessary’ and could be eliminated. Based on these budgets, we drew up a Reduced Consumption Scenario in order to estimate the carbon emissions that would arise in the production and distribution of all the goods and services itemised in the budgets, assuming that every household in the UK abided by them.

The budgets give precise details of all expenditure items. Food menus were checked by a nutritionist to ensure they met current government guidelines for healthy eating. An example of the weekly meat allocation for a lone parent with one child (toddler) is: 150g stewing steak; 400g beef mince; 62g bacon; 128g pork sausages; 175g chicken breasts; and 34g cooked chicken. All budgets contain some alcohol, the majority to be consumed at home. For example, a couple with one child is allocated 4 cans of Fosters’ lager; 4 cans of Thwaites’ Draught; and one bottle of Chilean white wine per week (presumably for the parents not the child). In addition to this, all other items of expenditure are provided in precise detail, from the purchase of cookers to the number of pairs of socks required each year.

We found that overall carbon emissions would be around 37% lower in the Reduced Consumption Scenario than average household emissions in the UK in 2004. As illustrated in the chart (right), carbon emissions would be reduced in twelve out of the fourteen categories of expenditure. Only one category significantly defied this trend. Rather than decreasing, overall emissions across the nation due to food and non-alcoholic drink increase in the Reduced Consumption Scenario by around 7%.

It is worth noting here some of the assumptions and limitations of the study, to understand what we can and cannot learn from it. Our study assumes that all goods and services in the Reduced Consumption Scenario are produced using the same industry structure, carbon intensity of production, and mix of imports as the UK in 2004. So, for example, the same percentage of fresh fruit and vegetables are assumed to be air-freighted to the UK in the Scenario as in 2004. The results therefore show what changes in carbon emissions would be brought about through the different basket of goods and services identified in the JRF budgets, but do not take account of technological changes, such as reductions in fertiliser usage, different trade patterns or a shift to low-carbon electricity supply. Furthermore, the study does not take into account wider considerations such as the bio-capacity of the Earth to produce sufficient food to feed growing future populations.

The study shows that, if we stay true to the JRF expenditure budgets, changes in the composition of the weekly food basket would increase carbon emissions. However, if the JRF’s remit had been to reduce environmental impacts it is probable that they would have made different choices with regard to food. In particular, a diet with less meat and dairy foods would result in lower emissions, as livestock have been shown to account for a significant proportion of carbon emissions [2][3]. Such a change need not jeopardise nutritional standards. For example, in a study which compared meals with comparable nutritional values, a meal made from potatoes, carrots and dry peas was estimated to have nine times lower emissions than a meal with tomatoes, rice and pork [4]. In addition to changes in menus, changes in production methods and, for example, ensuring supply of locally produced fruit and vegetables in season to replace imported goods could reduce carbon emissions further. There is therefore scope for overall carbon emissions to be reduced well beyond the 37% indicated.

In contrast to food and non-alcoholic drink, our study showed significant reductions in carbon emissions in most other categories of expenditure. Although the JRF study did not target environmental aspects, in fact many of the expenditures reduced or eliminated were those that have high energy intensity. For example, the study assumed insulation levels in homes above the current national average and so consumption of gas for central heating is lower in the Reduced Consumption Scenario than mean 2004 UK levels. The Scenario also assumes that cars are not necessary, and instead provides for purchasing bicycles and bus passes, along with taxi hire once a week for journeys that could otherwise be problematic. Furthermore, it was assumed that holidays would be taken in the UK, and therefore leisure aviation emissions would be eliminated.

So what might life be like in the Reduced Consumption Scenario? The JRF budgets are carefully planned to avoid many of the traps that modern consumers fall into. For example, everything in the budgets was considered to be ‘necessary’ whereas in our current culture we buy many things that we never use. This phenomenon of ‘over-consumption’ is illustrated by the plethora of unused items advertised on websites such as Freecycle and Ebay. Similarly, provision of goods which serve the purpose of ‘positional goods’ or ‘status markers’ are excluded in the Scenario. Therefore carbon emissions that arise in the production and distribution of these goods are eliminated in the Scenario.

For a fuller discussion of what life may be like under the Reduced Consumption Scenario the reader is referred to the papers listed to the right.

We close by commenting only that the conclusion from our study is optimistic. It highlights that a shift towards a society less focused on showing status through materialistic means is not just essential but potentially positive in terms of health outcomes and quality of life. It also identifies the need for substantial investment to reduce emissions from housing and transport. All in all, our study suggests that significant reductions in carbon emissions could be achieved without jeopardising either nutritional standards or social well-being.

Contact details:
Angela Druckman
ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE)
University of Surrey (D3),
Guildford GU2 7XH, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1483 686679;
Fax: +44 (0)1483 686671

Dr Angela Druckman and Dr Tim Jackson ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment (RESOLVE), University of Surrey, UK

[1] Bradshaw, J., et al. 2008 A minimum income standard for Britain: what people think. Joseph Rowntree Foundation: York, UK.
[2] Garnett, T. 2008 Cooking up a storm: Food, greenhouse gas emissions and our changing climate. 2008 Accessed; Available from:
[3] Garnett, T. 2009 Livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions: impacts and options for policy makers. Environmental Science & Policy: 12(4): p. 491-503.
[4] Carlsson-Kanyama, A. 1998 Climate change and dietary choices -- how can emissions of greenhouse gases from food consumption be reduced? Food Policy: 23(3-4): p. 277-293.