Plus-size emissions.

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Electric Cars Are One Thing. But Giving Up Meat?

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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The good news from Paris is pretty good: Rich and poor countries now agree to emit less carbon dioxide, and have pledged initial targets for reducing those emissions. Here's the bad news: The gap between the pledged targets and what's needed is so big that closing it might not be possible with better technology alone.

If that's the case, then maybe -- just maybe -- achieving the goals just agreed to with such fanfare will require Western countries to produce fewer emissions in part by consuming a lot less stuff. That's a conversation that hasn’t truly started, and one that politicians, probably for good reason, don’t seem eager to begin.

The Paris deal calls for keeping global temperatures "well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels." Think about what it would take to do that. Last year, the world emitted 4.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person. Staying below 2 degrees means reducing that to 4.5 tons by 2020, and then to 0.5 tons by 2050, according to figures compiled by the Global Carbon Project. No major industrialized country is further from that goal than the U.S., where last year each person was responsible, on average, for 17 tons of carbon dioxide.

QuickTake Climate Change

What will it take to drastically reduce carbon emissions? The optimistic answer is that cheaper clean energy, better storage, more electric vehicles, and more efficient buildings and appliances, spurred by aggressive government support and a price on carbon, will be sufficient. That seemed to be the message from political and business leaders in Paris: We can get there if we just innovate hard enough.

But there's a colossal gap between what's needed and what countries actually promised: The pledges "would need to roughly double to keep well below two degrees," according to Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia and part of the Global Carbon Project. And that gap raises the questions of whether technological changes alone will suffice and whether those changes will come quickly enough to meet the world's huge and growing appetite for energy, transportation, food, buildings and goods without blowing through the carbon budget. After all, just 1.6 percent of the world's energy now comes from solar and wind.

If technology can't solve the problem by itself, the other solution is decidedly low-tech: Consumers in the U.S. and other rich nations could just produce fewer emissions. (Developing countries, which produce just 3.4 tons of CO2 per capita, have less wiggle room.) The most alarming story to come out of the Paris talks may have been the New York Times telling Americans that they could reduce their carbon footprint by eating less red meat, taking the bus more, driving and flying less, owning fewer cars, and generally buying less stuff.

In other words, they could stop being American.

It's not hard to appreciate why politicians in the U.S. and elsewhere aren't keen on presenting that as part of the solution. "We've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning," President Jimmy Carter told the nation in 1979. The nation responded that it had discovered no such thing, and elected a president who was less of a downer.

Reducing emissions by changing consumption patterns doesn't mean living in a cave eating twigs. Japan emitted fewer than 10 tons of carbon dioxide per person last year, and European Union countries just 6.6. Those countries have standards of living that are every bit as good as in the U.S., judged by incomelife expectancy, education and health care.

What they don't have is bigness. Average living space per person in new U.S. homes has almost doubled in the past 40 years. The average new U.S. home in 2009 was 11 percent larger than in Canada, 60 percent bigger than in Greece and 164 percent bigger than in the U.K. Meanwhile, the average weight of pickup trucks has increased about 26 percent since 2000 alone. The best-selling vehicle in the U.S. last year was the Ford F-Series pickup. In France, the best-selling car was something that looks like a go-cart.

Part of the difference stems from density: The U.S. (along with Canada and Australia) has more space, which means more room for bigger houses, more miles to drive to get to them and less appetite for taking the bus. But it also reflects public choices, such as tax policies and state budgets that favor McMansions and freeways over subways and townhouses.

There is no inherent reason why the U.S. lifestyle couldn't more closely resemble that of other Western nations. Nor would such a shift necessarily need to be permanent: As clean technology improves, Americans could resume their supersizing.

American politicians may worry that so much as raising the possibility of changing the way we live, however temporarily, would sour voters already uncertain whether climate change is real, much less whether the government ought to do anything about it. It's hard to think of examples of citizens of a democracy accepting constraints on their consumption outside of wartime. It's a lot easier to keep hoping for better batteries.

(Corrects level of emissions per capita in developing countries in sixth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net