Supporting household behaviour changes is a crucial but often overlooked opportunity for climate action

Key messages

  • Fighting climate change means making changes in lifestyles, particularly for the wealthy, to complement efficiency and decarbonization strategies.
  • Sticking to the status quo in terms of consumption growth puts any supply-side decarbonization achievements at risk (e.g. solar deployment).
  • For changes in individual behaviour to make a difference, they must be combined with mutually reinforcing changes by the public and business sectors.
  • Lifestyles compatible with the 1.5°C goal can result in a “good life” for all.
  • “Consumption corridors,” which set the upper and lower consumption levels of acceptable individual carbon emissions, should serve as a guide.

Insight explained

Households have both a direct and indirect influence on a large share of global CO2 emissions through their consumption patterns. Targeting these demand-side sources has been overlooked in present climate change strategies, which should better balance supply- and demand-side interventions. In order to stay within the 1.5oC target it is necessary to at least halve mean global household CO2 emissions (by 2030), with very steep reductions required for wealthy households (e.g. the wealthiest 10% in the EU will have to cut their footprint by almost 90%). Given the noticeable difference in carbon emissions between households in less developed countries and more developed countries as well as within countries, response measures will have to be targeted, guided by climate justice and equity ideals (see insight 5 for more). Beyond equity justifications, these high-consuming households also offer the greatest behaviour change levers for demand-side mitigation.

Stimulating new value systems and behaviour change at the household level has the potential to create system-wide effects. The emission-intensive consumption areas of food, housing and mobility need specific attention. To make the changes necessary for 1.5oC lifestyles, households will need support from the public and business sectors. Evidence suggests that this process could drive a virtuous cycle of accelerating progress towards decarbonized societies. System-wide changes, such as shifts to low-carbon energy and transport, can make it possible to provide a good quality of life while staying within the stringent individual carbon budgets of a 1.5oC lifestyle.

A concept that is helpful in defining a 1.5oC lifestyle is “consumption corridors”. This is the space where the lower limit of emissions per individual is determined by the absolute prerequisites for a decent standard of living, and the upper limit is set by global emissions targets to achieve set climate goals. Moving the entire global population into this space would greatly improve life for billions while requiring significant changes to wealthy, high-consuming elites.

The COVID-19 pandemic instigated rapid and large changes in household behaviour (if not without contentious debate). This points to the possibility of achieving 1.5oC lifestyles via demand-side interventions, given a global crisis that was recognized by the public as requiring behavioural change. Importantly though, supply-side interventions must utilize democratic processes to assure that the burdens for change are equitably distributed both locally and globally.



  • 50% – share of global carbon reductions (or more) that could come from demand-side solutions.
  • 75% – share of demand-side solutions found to additionally have a positive impact on wellbeing.
  • 2.5 – tonnes of carbon per capita (half of 2020 levels) which can be emitted per household globally by 2030 to be on track.


The required footprint reductions in mobility are at least 72% in overconsuming developed countries.

Reducing individual car mobility.

Individual car mobility is one of the largest drivers of CO2 emissions. Relying on switching cars to electric means utilizing scarce resources and locks in car-based mobility (and all its negative externalities) with investments in new infrastructures. Policies which support demand-side solutions in the mobility sector include investment in and increasing subsidies for public transport, urban and rural development which reduces the need for commuting, providing obligatory space for non-motorized transport, and establishing and enlarging congestion charge zones for individual car use.


Required footprint reductions in nutrition are at least 47% in overconsuming developed countries.

Switching to plant-based diets.

The best ways to achieve the necessary changes in nutrition are large reductions in meat and dairy consumption, as well as minimizing food waste. Policies that support demand-side solutions in the food sector include a removal of subsidies for meat and dairy production, financial and regulatory support for plant-based production and fostering community and urban gardening.


Required footprint reductions in housing are at least 68% in overconsuming developed countries.

Low-carbon housing can be created through efficiency and sufficiency measures.

The decarbonization strategies of thermal renovation, efficiency of heating and switching to renewables need to be accompanied by demand-side solutions reducing individual per capita living areas. Policies that support demand-side solutions in the housing sector include progressive property taxation (based on per capita levels), regulation and taxation encouraging smaller housing and a moratorium or cap on further soil sealing.


There are huge inequalities in household carbon footprint both among and within countries and regions and social groups (refer to Insight 5 for more on the disparity in emissions globally). Demand-side solutions are those that involve households as the end users of products, services or processes. These are distinct from supply-side solutions that principally include changes in energy supply and deployment of carbon dioxide removal technologies. Demand-side solutions are enhanced by transdisciplinary and bottom-up actions towards climate mitigation measures globally.

Implications & Recommendations

At a global level, decision makers need to:

  • define equitable “consumption corridors” through democratic processes and place the burden of demand-side changes on high-emitting consumer elites.

At regional and national levels, governments are urged to:

  • translate national policies to achieve the 1.5oC target into concrete measures, including creating the infrastructure needed for 1.5oC-compatible lifestyles;
  • pay particular attention to solutions in areas of food, transport and housing that are of crucial relevance;
  • support changes to household consumption patterns via policy and infrastructure that spur mutually reinforcing transitions.
Figure 7: Conceptual illustration of consumption corridors.16
Figure 8: Current carbon footprints of different countries compared to global climate targets.16

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

Solutions and Barriers




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