Climate gap report 2021

A new report from Ethical Consumer to help identify how consumers, governments and companies can work together to help fix the climate crisis.

October 2021

It is widely recognised that the next ten years will be critical in turning around global carbon emissions. As one of Ethical Consumer’s contributions to this process, we plan to produce an ‘Annual Climate Gap Report on Progress Towards Sustainable Consumer Lifestyles in the UK’.

The 2021 report, due for launch during Ethical Consumer Week on October 19th, should therefore be the first in a series. It aims to track the gap between our current combined consumption emissions and where they need to be by 2030.

The Climate Change Committee and our research

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) was set up under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the UK government on decarbonisation. It is an independent body comprised mainly of economists and environmental experts and its main role is to report to Parliament annually on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is a bit like SAGE, the group of scientific advisors which has become well known during the pandemic, in that they both issue politely exasperated reports about the need to take urgent action in key areas.

The CCC’s 200-page reports have provided most of the data for three of the impact areas we are examining for this Report: Food, Transport and Heating. A core element in this project is therefore trying to convert the CCC’s work into something more digestible for ordinary consumers. For the fourth impact area, Consumer Goods, we have conducted our own research and extrapolated targets and campaigns from elsewhere. A key goal is to produce a simplified list of key actions for consumers, companies and governments too.

Cover of report with tree on the front

There are many roads up the mountain

There is no single route to decarbonisation. We are using the ‘balanced scenario’ produced by the CCC for many of our targets because it is comprehensive, based on thorough upto-date research, and gives consumers an idea of the direction we need to be headed in. It is for this reason that we are describing this report as containing ‘science-based targets’ for consumers.

But there are plenty of arguments to be had with it – in particular that it does not cut fast enough – and we discuss these in more detail in the longer online version of this report (see below). At the moment, however, while we are still such a long way from meeting even these targets, we feel that it makes sense to be using this in the first instance.

Key finding 1

We’re not moving fast enough

The colour coding in the tables in the report shows that, across three impact areas, Food, Heating, and Transport, carbon reduction is not moving quickly enough (orange). [1] For the fourth area, Consumer Goods,
it appears to be moving in the wrong direction and impacts are increasing (red). Indeed, for the eight target areas we looked at for which year-on-year data was available, none of these appeared to be moving fast enough.

This key message is both the most important and least important at the same time. It is most important because it is the key question we are seeking to answer, and least important because we are scarcely alone in making it. [2]

Key finding 2

A sustainable lifestyle is not scary

The sustainable future mapped out by the Climate Change Committee (see below) for 2030 currently looks like it only requires quite modest changes to the way we live now. The summary table opposite lists all 12 actions consumers need to take to help make this target. Many of the main elements are starting to become familiar: cars and heating will need to be electrified and we’ll need to reduce meat, dairy and other consumption to some degree. We’re planning to publish some more work on further prioritising consumer actions later this year.

Key finding 3

The necessary political engagement work looks harder

At Ethical Consumer, we have long recognised that the decisions that consumers make, and around climate change particularly, are so dependent on the frameworks that government and companies provide that it is unhelpful to look at consumer choices in isolation. [3]

Our Climate Gap Reports are therefore designed to feature key consumer actions alongside what companies
and governments need to do in each specific area. This can give consumers a sense that they are part of something bigger as well as highlighting some key political campaigns that might be worth supporting.
It is the political work we need to do as citizens that looks harder here than the consumer actions. The low-carbon lifestyle carbon expert, Mike Berners-Lee, when asked about the degree to which individuals should think about balancing the need to cut their own emissions with the need to take political action, suggested
a 60% to 40% split in favour of prioritising political action. [4]

It looks like UK citizens urgently need to build broad coalitions, exemplified by the Eating Better Alliance, across all of the key impact areas identified in this Report. [5]

Key finding 4

The data available to track progress is of variable quality

The quality of the data in this area is sometimes quite poor. For example, for 2 of the 12 areas we are trying to track (meat consumption and carbon footprints of consumer goods), the most recent available year-on-year figures published by the government are 2018-2019 and 2017-2018 respectively. [6]

In order to create positive motivations to take action, feedback loops showing what impact we are collectively having (or not), are important. When you compare the time delays in publishing data for consumer markets with some of the information that financial markets can use, which are updated many times a second, it gives a sense of how skewed our economies have become towards meeting financial goals above all
others.

One of our key initial contributions to this debate is therefore to ask governments to consider working to address this area particularly. A dashboard of monthly-updated figures online would be a much-needed tool in this critical moment of climate emergency.

Key finding 5

Governments should also make it mandatory for companies to report on their supply chain emissions

One additional demand emerging from this whole report, and that we would like to highlight, is for governments to make it mandatory for companies to report on their supply chain emissions. Although regulators are beginning to require companies to report on their own direct emissions, they are not yet requiring companies to do so for their supply chains. This is despite the evidence that often 80% of the emissions of consumer goods occur here. [7]

It is hard to see how we can be sure that we are collectively on target on carbon reduction, particularly
around the consumer goods impacts, without this happening.

Summary Report Card 2021

The report card below summarises our key findings from the report, across food, heating, transport and consumer goods, and covering around 75% of our collective total consumer emissions.

It looks at how much we must cut our emissions by by 2030 to meet UK targets in each of these areas, and whether we are moving fast enough towards these goals. It then highlights the key actions we must - as consumers, governments and businesses - take.

Summary Report Card 2021
  Food (26%) Heating (14%) Transport (25%)

Selected Consumer

Goods (10%)

Consumer-related actions needed by 2030 (from a 2019 baseline)* c. 15% CO2e reduction c. 23% CO2e reduction c. 17% CO2e reduction c. 40% CO2e reduction
What reductions were achieved in the most recent year’s figures?

0% reduction

1% CO2e reduction 0% reduction 0.3% increase
The current climate gap. What is still needed? 15% still to reduce 22% still to reduce 17% still to reduce 41% still to reduce
Are we moving fast enough? Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Not moving fast enough Going in the wrong direction
What does government need to do? Use public procurement. Rebalance agricultural policy. Subsidise solutions. Provide clear framework. Halt airport expansion. Electric vehicle (EV) purchase subsidies. Require companies to report on their supply chain emissions.
What do companies need to do? Better impact labelling. More plant options on menus. Develop creative funding instruments. Address the skills gaps. Replace business travel with online working. Report annually on supply chain emissions.
What do consumers need to do? Reduce meat and dairy consumption by 20%. Reduce food waste. Insulate. Do smarter heating. Choose heat pumps where possible. Choose electric vehicles. Reduce air and road travel where possible. Increase repair and buying second hand. Choose sustainable brands.
Where are consumer intentions? 29-39% willing 19-50% willing 24-35% willing 28-70% willing

* in the CCC’s ‘Balanced Scenario’

Key to tables: c. = circa or approximately CCC = Climate Change Committee

Next steps

Over the coming year, we plan to publish some follow-up work prioritising consumer actions as well as some of the campaigns to support in 2022.

We very much welcome feedback – please tell us if you know of some data that we missed, or if you disagree with the whole approach.

We are also seeking partners who think they may be able to bring some resources to next year’s version to make it even better, particularly around the primary research we are undertaking.

To contact us with feedback, email enquiries@ethicalconsumer.org with ‘Climate Gap Report’ in the subject line.

References:

1. We took the decision not to include pandemic-induced aviation reductions in these figures, as they are likely to give a false impression of longer-term trends.
2. See e.g.: Green Alliance and Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
3. We first wrote on this in EC27 in January 1994.
4. How bad are bananas? Mike Berners-Lee, 2020
5. Eating Better
6. Some of the data on consumer goods is of variable quality, with alarming amounts in “miscellaneous”, “government spending” or “other” categories.
7. World Economic Forum, 2022, ‘Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity’ report.