Understanding Households as Drivers of Carbon Emissions

Angela Druckman and Tim Jackson

Abstract Households are accountable for nearly three quarters of global carbon emissions and thus understanding the drivers of these emissions is important if we are to make progress towards a low carbon future. This chapter starts by explaining the importance of using an appropriate consumption perspective accounting framework for assessing the carbon footprint of households. This contrasts from the more commonly used production perspective, as, for many Western countries in particular, once responsibility for emissions embedded in imported goods and services are taken into account, consumption emissions are often higher than production emissions.

The chapter then reviews findings concerning the determinants and composition of the carbon footprint of households, focusing on Western countries. One of the main determinants is income, with carbon footprints increasing with increasing incomes. However, other drivers, such as household size and composition, rural/ urban location, diet and type of energy supply, also play a part. Studies show that the majority of an average carbon footprint arises from three domains: transportation, housing and food. Further analyses aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the motivations behind the activities driving emissions, in particular those due to transportation and housing, show that recreation and leisure pursuits are responsible for a substantial portion of average carbon footprints. Studies indicate, for example, that activities such as spending time with friends and family in and around the home, which are generally low carbon and also enhance well-being, should be encouraged alongside the more mainstream strategies of improving systems of provision of energy, food, housing and transportation.

The finding that income is one of the principal drivers of carbon emissions is a challenging and important issue to address, as, for instance, incomes are arguably the driver of the rebound effect – a phenomenon that confounds attempts to reduce carbon footprints, making reducing emissions more of an uphill task than often acknowledged. This challenge leads us to a wider, whole-systems approach in which we view households as an integral part of the system of production and consumption.

In summary, industrial ecology, with its wide ranging systems approach as shown in this chapter, has a great deal to contribute to the quest to devise strategies to move towards lower carbon, fulfilling lifestyles.

Keywords Carbon footprint • Consumption-based accounting • Environmental input-output analysis • Household carbon-footprint • Personal carbon-footprint • Rebound effect • Time use • Work-time reductions

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