Green actions increase wellbeing

When it comes to climate, you can have your green cake and eat it too...
30 December 2021


Smiling woman


Typically when we think about taking environmentally friendly actions, we think of it as a tradeoff with our quality of life, with there being a sentiment that we have to sacrifice some level of well-being to act green. But, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, this might not need to be the case after all...

Led by Felix Creutzig, from TU Berlin, the study found that in “three quarters of cases in the combination of demand-side options and wellbeing, the effects are positive [on wellbeing] and only 3% of cases have a negative impact.” As a result, a large majority of the time environmentally-friendly lifestyles tend to increase human quality of life, not reduce it.

Scientists refer to climate solutions that affect our daily lives, such as eating less meat, as ‘demand-side’ climate solutions. These are in contrast to ‘supply-side’ solutions, which attempt to shift the source of our electricity away from fossil fuels towards low-carbon energy sources but do not affect our everyday lives.

Typically, studies investigating potential climate solutions tend to focus largely on supply-side solutions rather than demand-side solutions, and when these solutions are evaluated it is often done solely on a cost basis, with no consideration regarding how these solutions might impact quality of life, as this is more challenging to measure.

To address these gaps, this study was the first to investigate the carbon reduction potential of these lifestyle related demand-side solutions and the first to try to understand their impact on human wellbeing. They did this by comparing climate mitigating solutions across four key sectors (buildings, transport, food and industry) with 18 measures of human wellbeing, which include air and water quality, sanitation,  health, access to shelter, access to mobility services, political participation and social stability.

Kreutzig and colleagues conducted this analysis by bringing together previous case studies under a new standardised framework where they analysed the impact of each demand-side solution on each measure of human wellbeing and tried to evaluate whether that impact was positive, neutral or negative, and how significant was this impact.

They found that the biggest climate mitigation potential is from people reducing their meat consumption and from people taking up more active forms of transport such as walking and cycling. Coincidentally, these two lifestyle changes were also found to have the largest positive impact on human wellbeing, particularly on health.

Nevertheless, Kreutzig was keen to stress that not all of these lifestyle changes can be achieved by individuals alone but also require political and infrastructure changes to the society around us. To  make this point, he uses the example of cycling. “Many people would like to cycle more ... but it is often not safe. If policymakers enable safe cycling by safe, separated infrastructure [dedicated cycle lanes], this will have a huge impact [on the number of people taking up cycling]."

Furthermore, while demand-side solutions are shown to be important, they also need to go hand-in-hand with supply side solutions, with Kreutzig saying “demand and supply side solutions ...complement each other” because shift to renewable energy means that any electrified transport, such as electric cars, are actually low emission rather than giving the appearance of being so. Additionally, demand-side solutions bring about reductions in energy usage, which makes the transition to renewable energy easier on the supply-side.

Taking the greener option today is already easier than ever, with supermarkets increased stocked with vegan meat alternatives. With more of these demand-side solutions being adopted and implemented, Kreutzig suggests that eventually that the green option becomes the default option, meaning that making the low-carbon and high-wellness choice is that much more simple. Kreutzig envisions visiting a restaurant in this low-carbon future, “the first option you will see is always a vegan can still find meat-based meals but those are not dominantly presented in the menu”.


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