In the face of a constant stream of bad news – the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, spiralling fuel poverty and looming global food shortages – positive action is the best way to cope. And there is a set of actions that we can all take to address all these emergencies simultaneously, with immediate results, and at no financial cost.
It’s time to talk about behaviour change – the missing part of the solution to so many problems, but largely ignored by policymakers who are reluctant to risk alienating voters.
How can people in other countries help reduce the flow of finance that sustains Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? By immediately cutting consumption of Russian oil and gas. But simply turning to other sources of fossil fuels from regimes that are often equally complicit in human rights abuses is not the answer. Nor is using this crisis as an excuse to produce more domestic oil, gas and coal, including through fracking. We’ve known for years that we have to leave most fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avert catastrophic climate change.
Of course we also need to urgently accelerate the roll out of renewable energy and implement a large-scale energy efficiency programme to equip homes with heat pumps and better insulation, but this will take time, and we need to act right now. The UK government’s target to stop importing oil from Russia by the end of 2022 (with no comparable target for gas) is too late to save Ukraine.
What you can do
Instead, let’s finally pay some attention to the power that individuals have to cut consumption. In the UK for instance, one study found that saving energy through simple measures such as turning down thermostats and turning off lights and heating in empty rooms could save 23% of gas consumption for household heating and power generation. For instance, setting the thermostat just 1℃ lower can save 10% of heating bills, with temperatures of 18℃ to 20℃ still being safe and comfortable for all except elderly or vulnerable people.
Similarly people can cut oil consumption by driving and flying less, such as by working from home, avoiding foreign holidays and walking and cycling short journeys.
Though countries like Germany are more reliant on Russia, only 8% of the UK’s oil and 4% of its gas is imported from Russia – surely UK citizens can find a way to reduce their consumption by that amount? Any further reduction in demand will help to ease supply constraints in the global market, making it easier for other countries to also reduce their dependence. This reduction of demand, especially if replicated in other countries, would also contribute to reducing fuel prices in global markets, helping the millions of people struggling with fuel poverty both in the UK and elsewhere.
Food for thought
Shifting to a more plant-based diet is equally powerful, given the dependence of global food supplies on grain and fertilisers from Russia and Ukraine. More than half of the UK’s wheat production, two thirds of its barley and one third of its oats is used to feed livestock not humans. Replacing livestock products with plant proteins such as pulses, beans and nuts is far more efficient in terms of land, water and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the UK is a net exporter of grain, cutting its own consumption could enable more UK exports and would reduce pressure on global food prices. Some of the arable and grazing land freed up in this way could be restored to carbon-rich woodland, grassland and wetlands that support nature recovery and help us to adapt to climate change. And more investment in sustainable farming that builds up soil fertility can reduce reliance on imported fertilisers.
All of these measures have many additional benefits. We need to cut fossil fuel use far more quickly to avoid climate catastrophe. Although government policy focuses on new infrastructure, cutting resource demand through behaviour change is a neglected yet instant solution that will usually save money and does not require capital investment.
There are also benefits for health – more cycling and walking can tackle sedentary lifestyles, and plant-based diets have recently been shown to be associated with reduced rates of some types of cancer. And using fewer resources will cut the pollution and other environmental damage caused by mining, logging, intensive agriculture and manufacturing.
Despite all these benefits, behaviour change will involve commitment and some sacrifices – fewer flights to foreign holidays or conferences, cutting down on some of our favourite foods, and braving the weather to cycle rather than drive. That’s why the time to act is now, with the desperate need to end a horrific war acting as powerful additional motivation for behaviour change that might also save humanity in the longer term. Let’s redouble our efforts to change our own lifestyles, change our organisations and institutions, and spread the message to inspire those around us to do the same.
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Alison Smith receives funding from UK Research and Innovation and the Oxford Martin School.