Lifestyle Changes

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Lifestyle Changes


The term lifestyle often refers to the chosen aspects of a person's material life. This includes what they eat, out of the range of foods available to them; what kind of house they buy; what appliances and toys they buy; personal behaviors such as driving habits or turning appliances on and off; and more. Lifestyle can refer to the non-chosen aspects of life as well. In this broader sense, persons born in suburban America are bound to have a different lifestyle from most of those born in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lifestyle choices impact climate change because all the products and services people use are made using materials and energy. There is broad agreement among those who study human-caused climate change that lifestyle choices do have a significant impact on climate, and that lifestyle is in turn affected by factors such as social expectations, advertising, and personal attitudes toward the environment.

Normally, scientific analyses of climate mitigation, such as that offered in Part III of the Fourth Assessment Report (2007) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), explicitly exclude voluntary lifestyle changes when discussing mitigation of climate change. This is done as a conservatism (i.e., an assumption that makes it less likely one will err in a tempting direction), as there is no way to predict how much voluntary lifestyle change is going to occur.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Historical Appeals to Lifestyle Change

Personal lifestyle changes are often urged on the public during times of crisis such as war. Thrift is the usual theme. During World War II (1939-1945) for example, advertising campaigns exhorted U.S. citizens to recycle scrap material and make appliances last. For example, ads for Calvert brand whiskey urged, “Use it up or wear it out/ Make it do or do without.” However, immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, some public figures urged citizens to consume more, not less: for example, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “Americans must get back to work, to go shopping, going to the theatre, to help get the country back on a sounder financial footing.”

In 1952, in one of the earliest campaigns with an environmental-responsibility theme, the Pennsylvania Resources Council copyrighted the figure of the Litterbug, a trash-dropping humanoid insect whose name became part of the English language thanks to widespread use of the “Don't Be a Litterbug” slogan. Other efforts to persuade people to change personal lifestyle came with the environmental movement from the 1960s to the present, with various ad campaigns seeking to persuade people to boycott fur, meat, genetically modified plants and animals, cosmetics tested on rabbits, and more. The environmental and animal-rights movements have made it standard practice to draw attention, both in serious books and articles and in ad campaigns, to connections between lifestyle choices and distant, normally invisible consequences. These are exactly the kinds of connections that hold between lifestyle and climate change.

With the firming of scientific consensus about the reality, human-caused nature, and potentially catastrophic consequences of global climate change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the connection between lifestyle and climate became widely discussed. Numerous writers urged readers to consider the effects of their choices on global climate. Former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, at the end of his film about the dangers of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), urged viewers to mitigate their own contribution to climate change by replacing regular light bulbs with compact fluorescents, driving less, recycling more, keeping car tires inflated (to improve mileage), using less hot water, avoiding products with lots of packaging, keeping one's home at a slightly cooler temperature, planting trees, and turning off electricity-consuming devices. As of 2007, however, there were no scientific data on the effect of such persuasive efforts on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Scientific Study of Lifestyle, Environment, and Climate

Scientific study of the relationship between lifestyle and the environment, including climate, began in the late 1980s when some researchers introduced the lifestyle concept into the quantitative study of personal energy consumption. In 1989, in a study in the journal Annual Review of Energy that has often been quoted by later researchers, L. Schipper and colleagues estimated that “about 45-55% of total energy use is influenced by consumers' activities for personal transportation, personal services, and homes,” and added that “significant changes in energy demand will be driven by the mix of personal activities and their locations.” In the 1990s, other researchers argued that most degradation of the environment can be traced to consumer behavior, either directly or indirectly.

The distinction between direct and indirect impact appears in all scientific literature on the connection between lifestyle and climate change, where impact is usually measured in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. “Direct impact” refers to direct electricity or fuel use for lighting, cooking, appliances, space and water heating, and other uses in the home, or to personal travel (driving, recreational boating or other transport, flying to vacations). “Indirect impact” refers to CO2 and other greenhouse emissions that are involved in providing products or services before they reach the consumer. The direct impact of an automobile purchased by a consumer comes from the fuel burned by the car; the indirect impact comes from the fuel burned to make the car and deliver it to the consumer.

A mathematical model developed by Shui Bin and Hadi Dowlatabadi in 2005 and since adopted by some other researchers attempts to describe in detail the relationship between lifestyle and climate. In this model, called the consumer lifestyle approach (CLA), lifestyle is reflected in consumption behavior, or how much material and energy a person consumes. Many factors influence lifestyle, and lifestyle in turn has consequences for the environment. Factors that influence lifestyle include cultural setting and changing technology; personal attitudes and preferences; household characteristics such as number of people, income, and location; and consumer choices about purchase and use of services and machines. Consequences that are the result of consumer behavior include energy use (both direct and indirect) and the environmental changes arising from that use. As of 2007, the CLA has been applied to the study of American and Chinese energy use and the CO2 emissions arising from that use.


CARBON FOOTPRINT: The amount of carbon dioxide (or of any other greenhouse gas, counted in terms of the greenhouse-equivalent amount of CO2) emitted to supply the energy and materials consumed by a person, product, or event. A concert, manufactured object, family, organization, or individual person may all have a carbon footprint. The more carbon is released, the larger the footprint.

COMPACT FLUORESCENT LIGHT BULB: Fluorescent light bulbs with tightly spiraled tubes that fit inside small, bulb-shaped glass envelopes. Can replace incandescent (hot-filament) light bulbs in most applications and use about a fourth as much energy to produce a given amount of light. They are the most costly to install but can pay for themselves with lower energy use and longer lifetime.

DEFORESTATION: Those practices or processes that result in the change of forested lands to non-forest uses. This is often cited as one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect for two reasons: 1) the burning or decomposition of the wood releases carbon dioxide; and 2) trees that once removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of photosyn-thesis are no longer present and contributing to carbon storage.

DESERTIFICATION: Transformation of arid or semiarid productive land into desert.

DIRECT ENERGY USE: Consumption of energy for direct function, such as burning fuel to move a vehicle, heat food, or heat buildings or consuming electricity to run machines. Usually contrasted to indirect energy use, which is the consumption of energy via the consumption of products (food, clothes, computers, toys, etc.) that require energy for their manufacture, transport, and disposal. Actual energy use is the sum of direct and indirect use.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

GREENHOUSE-GAS EMISSIONS: Releases of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. To simplify discussion of how much warming is being caused by emissions of various greenhouse gases—each of which causes a different amount of warming, ton for ton—it is customary to translate emissions of gases other than carbon dioxide into the number of tons of CO2 that would produce the same amount of warming, i.e., units of “tons CO2 equivalent.”

INDIRECT ENERGY USE: Energy consumption required to support the provision of a product or service that does not explicitly appear during the consumption of the product or service: for example, the energy used to manufacture a television is indirect energy use by the TV owner, while the electricity consumed by running the TV is direct energy use.

The CLA estimates total consumer energy use and CO2 emissions by several means. For direct energy use, actual and estimated use of different types of fuel— gasoline, propane, aviation fuel, and so on—is tallied up and the carbon emitted by this fuel is then calculated. This information can be readily derived from statistics supplied by the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration. For indirect energy use, data on how consumers spend their money is combined with an input-output matrix describing how energy is used to support various economic activities. A tool for estimating the energy (and greenhouse-gas emissions) hidden in various goods and services is the Environmental Input-Output Life Cycle Analysis model developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bin and Dowlatabadi's 2005 examination of the role of consumer activities in U.S. greenhouse emissions found that direct household energy use accounts for about 11% of all U.S. energy consumption, while personal travel accounts for another 18%. Indirect impact of consumer choices accounts for another 57% of U.S. energy consumption. That is, twice as much energy is used indirectly to produce the average U.S. lifestyle as is used by consumers directly in heating and cooling their homes, running their lights and appliances, and fueling their vehicles.

The analysis also showed that various consumer activities in the United States, as of 1997, produced carbon dioxide as follows: housing operation (indirect energy usage for housing), 26% of CO2 emissions; personal travel, 21%; home energy (direct energy usage in homes), 19%; transportation operation, 17%; food and beverages, 7.7%; clothing, entertainment, health care, and other, a total of 9%. Changes in lifestyle can affect all these categories of energy use and CO2 emissions.

A limitation of the CLA is its exclusive focus on energy use as a driver of global warming. In reality, consumers also influence climate through land-use changes. For example, consumption of lumber and paper causes trees to be cut down, which may result in decreased uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by forests. Or, a meat-centered diet may enhance global warming by contributing more methane and nitrous oxide (from livestock) than a vegetarian or less meat-centered diet. However, in the early 2000s, scientific understanding of lifestyle's effect on climate was still in its infancy, and researchers were trying to first get a good grasp on the largest single influence of lifestyle on climate—namely, energy consumption, direct and indirect. As with computer models of climate itself, more complex and accurate models were sure to follow.

Impacts and Issues

Below, two aspects of lifestyle's effect on climate are discussed, namely buildings and food. Emphasis is given to lifestyle choices in the United States, which rivals China as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and outranks all but a handful of other countries in terms of per-capita greenhouse emissions. Other areas in which personal lifestyle choice can impact global climate change include transportation, recreation, and personal consumables such as electronics.

Buildings and Housing

Decreased housing prices in recent decades made it feasible for many Americans to own larger houses than ever before. In 1970, only 10% of new houses in the United States had over 2,400 square ft (223 square m) of floor space; in 2007, 42% of new houses were that large. Also, fewer people were living in these larger houses. From 1940 to 2007, while average U.S. house size doubled, the average number of inhabitants per house decreased from 3.7 to 2.6. All these changes in lifestyle increased per-capita greenhouse emissions greatly. Although large houses require more direct and indirect energy to build, that is not the main problem: only about 10% of the energy consumed by a house goes into its construction. The other 90% is consumed by a house while it is being inhabited. Even using “green” construction techniques and high energy efficiency does not compensate for large housing size. According to the Journal of Industrial Ecology (2005), “A 1,500-square-foot house with mediocre energy-performance standards will use far less energy for heating and cooling than a 3,000-square-foot house of comparable geometry with much better energy detailing.”


“Changes in lifestyle and behavior patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors. Management practices can also have a positive role (high agreement, medium evidence). Lifestyle changes can reduce GHG [greenhouse-gas] emissions. Changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns that emphasize resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable….”

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al., eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007.

Larger houses are a lifestyle choice; smaller houses can be too. According to the IPCC, buildings both large and small are a major source of potential greenhouse mitigation. Globally, the projected baseline (as projected with no mitigation) emissions from both the residential and commercial building sectors can be reduced at approximately zero cost, or at a profit, by 30% by 2020. Insulation of walls and windows, efficient light, and efficient space heating are the areas of greatest potential savings. The IPCC also recognizes “occupant behavior” as a major influence on energy use in buildings, playing a fundamental role in determining CO2, but acknowledges that the nature of this role, and the ways in which public policy might influence occupant behavior, have been little studied.


In 2007, ads funded by the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) appeared claiming that “Meat Is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming.” This was an exaggeration, but it pointed in the direction of a truth: human diet does affect climate. All industrialized agriculture contributes to climate change, and the raising of livestock (cattle, sheep, etc.) does so more than other agriculture.

According to the British medical journal The Lancet for September 2007, about 22% of total global greenhouse-gas emissions are from agriculture, about as much as those from industry and more than those from transportation. Livestock production accounts for 80% of agriculture emissions, and so far about 18% of total emissions, namely 9% of global CO2 emissions, 35–40% of methane (CH4), and 65% of nitrous oxide (N2O). Over a third of agricultural greenhouse emissions from livestock production are due to deforestation and desertification, almost a third consist of methane released from the decay of manure, a quarter are from intestinal (enteric) fermentation by ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep), and the remainder from artificial fertilizers, on-farm fuel-use, and other contributions. These figures are a global average, and may not apply to a particular country.

In the world's high-income countries, meat consumption is about 7-8.8 oz (200-250 g) per day per person. In low-income countries, it is .88-1.8 oz (25-50 g) per day: in Africa, only 1 oz (28 grams) per day. Meat consumption is increasing in many previously low-income countries; for example, Chinese per-capita meat consumption approximately doubled from 1997 to 2007.

The authors of the 2007 Lancet study suggested that health could be improved for people in both the high-income and low-income countries if meat consumption in the former were to decline to 3 oz (85 g) per day, and increase to the same figure in the latter. Assuming a global population increase of 40% by 2050, achieving an average global meat intake of 3 oz per day would stabilize greenhouse emissions from livestock at today's levels. Technologies for reducing emissions from livestock production could reduce methane and nitrous oxide by about 20% below that level.

To move in the direction of this meat consumption picture would clearly require lifestyle choices by hundreds of millions of people in high-income countries eating a little less than half the meat they typically consume today. Since high meat consumption has been associated with a heightened risk for some cancers and for heart disease, people could chose to eat less meat to mitigate climate change and, on average, to benefit their personal health.

Choices, Values

Discussion of lifestyle choice can never be completely reduced to calculations about CO2 and money. An influential school of thought represented by such writers as Kentucky farmer and professor Wendell Berry (1934-) and Vermont climate activist Bill McKibben (1960-), among others, many writing from religious points of view, has urged for decades that increasing thrift and reducing consumption is not only an environmental but a spiritual good. Greater thrift, say these and other writers advocating simple living—dating back, most famously, to Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author of Walden— opens up space and time for a fuller experience of life. As one spends less, one may earn less, leaving more time for music, writing, sport, conversation, and nature. Others, however, view material luxury as innocent and desirable, or consider questions of value as a distraction from affairs of public policy and technology.

Lifestyle choices are made constantly by most people living in industrialized countries, though they are not always aware of it. Every choice to buy a product is also a choice to emit greenhouse gases, because every product requires energy to manufacture, package, and transport. If electronic or gasoline-powered, it will continue to consume energy until it is recycled or becomes garbage. Clothes, snacks, automobiles, snowmobiles, magazines, temporary packaging like shopping bags—and the many thousands of others that pass through the hands of typical consumers in Western industrial society every year—all contribute to climate change and to other forms of environmental degradation. The same is true of services such as travel. For example, a typical transatlantic airline flight, per passenger, emits about as much CO2 as the typical U.S. car does in an entire year and causes about twice as much global warming, because fuel burned at high altitude is twice as climate-changing as the same amount of fuel burned at ground level. In short, every choice to purchase goods, energy, or services is an opportunity to make a lifestyle adjustment that reduces climate change.

However, such choices often seem to entail, or actually do entail, personal loss. As acknowledged in the CLA, personal values are a factor in the relationship between lifestyle and climate. Some people would consider it a sacrifice to drive a small car, install a water-saver showerhead, live in a smaller house, own fewer shoes, turn off unused lights and appliances, vacation closer to home, go for a walk rather than watch television, buy ingredients and cook them rather than buying prepared foods, keep track of a re-usable coffee cup rather than throwing away disposables, and so on. Others might find positive pleasure in the same actions.

Few, probably, would find it pleasant to reduce their personal CO2 emissions—their carbon footprint, as it is sometimes called—to the absolute feasible minimum all at once, if ever. However, lifestyle choices can be made one at a time, and each choice has an impact, direct or indirect, on climate change. Making even small choices schools one's sense of connection to the industrial economy that feeds, clothes, houses, and entertains, but which also threatens the natural world on which humans depend for survival.

See Also Carbon Footprint; Energy Efficiency.



Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


Applebome, Peter. “Human Behavior, Global Warming, and the Ubiquitous Plastic Bag.” The New York Times (September 30, 2007).

Aune, Margrethe. “Energy Comes Home.” Energy Policy 35 (2007): 5475-5465.

Bin, Shui, and Hadi Dowlatabadi. “Consumer Lifestyle Approach to US Energy Use and the Related CO2 Emissions.” Energy Policy 33 (2005): 197-208.

Deutsch, Claudia H. “Trying to Connect the Dinner Plate to Climate Change.” The New York Times (August 29, 2007).

Dias, Rubens A., et al. “The Limits of Human Development and the Use of Energy and Natural Resources.” Energy Policy 34 (2006): 1026-1031.

Higgins, Paul A. T., and Millicent Higgins. “A Healthy Reduction in Oil Consumption and Carbon Emissions.” Energy Policy 33 (2005): 1-4.

McMichael, Anthony J., et al. “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health.” The Lancet (September 13, 2007).

Schipper, L., et al. “Linking Life-Styles and Energy Use: A Matter of Time?” Annual Review of Energy 14 (1989): 271-320.

Wei, Yi-Ming, et al. “The Impact of Lifestyle on Energy Use and CO2 Emission: An Empirical Analysis of China's Residents.” Energy Policy 35 (2007): 247-257.

Wilson, Alex, and Jessica Boehland. “Small Is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 9 (2005): 277-287.

Web Sites

“Author Promotes Lifestyle Changes in Global Warming Fight.” Online News Hour, PBS, April 13, 2007. <> (accessed October 29, 2007).

Larry Gilman