The Big Question
A recently published report by, among others, researchers at Aalto University and Sitra points to the need for drastic changes in our consumption patterns if we want to meet the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement. The study highlights the magnitude of the required change, calculating a required reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 86-93% for Finland by 2050.
Such a massive reduction can only be achieved by fundamentally changing our consumption patterns. The study identifies a wide range of changes that need to be implemented if we are to reach the target, including shifting from meat and dairy consumption to plant-based diets and minimizing private car use and airplane travel.
Research has long documented the environmental degradation stemming from our current ways of living. It is also becoming more widely acknowledged that our efforts to mitigate environmental problems to date, focusing on improving the efficiency of production, will not suffice. Calls for changes in the ways we consume are moving from the margins of the discussion to center stage.
However, even if we know what change is needed, the perhaps most challenging question is yet to be answered. How are we going to achieve this change? This is the million-dollar question that we need to turn our attention to.
Research and policy on sustainable consumption has tended to favor the idea of a green consumer, making ethical decisions of their own volition. Experience has shown that relying on individual consumers to make informed consumption decisions makes little difference. A growing number of researchers are pointing out the need to instead focus on systemic change. A systems perspective recognizes our consumption patterns as intertwined with societal structures, including the political and economic system as well as cultural practices. Change in complex systems cannot be left to individual consumers, but needs to be system wide.
Taking a systems perspective reveals the difficulty of managing societal change. Research is needed to address the question of how to manage systemic change towards consumption patterns that are environmentally sustainable. We need to move from studying the present to understanding processes of change. We need theoretical lenses and methodological tools to understand and study sustainability transitions. As researchers, we can contribute with knowledge that supports society in transitioning to ways of living that do not degrade the natural environment.