How moderation could accelerate climate action

How can we feed 10 billion people with a healthy diet that doesn’t wreck the planet? The answer, offered by the EAT-Lancet Commission in a newly released report, is dubbed the ‘planetary health diet’ and comes with a surprise: It doesn’t banish animal products. While it advocates that we get a greater share of our protein from plants, it allows for moderate consumption of meat, fish, dairy products and other animal-derived foods.

At first, what I call a surprise may seem like no big deal. After all, the EAT-Lancet Commission joins the canon of the sustainability literature in advocating a shift toward diets dominated by plant-based proteins. I would argue, however, that the way the Commission is approaching the topic comes with much greater promise for impact because it calls for moderation and doesn’t mandate that we give up animal products altogether.

I have long held the view that approaches emphasizing less instead of none stand a greater chance of triggering climate action. People find it easier to subscribe to an approach focused on reducing consumption than to one advocating the complete elimination of a practice. Food consumption is a prime example: While many people struggle with the idea of going vegetarian (let alone vegan), most are open to considering foregoing meat from time to time. Choosing the vegetarian option at a restaurant every so often is more appealing to the masses than giving up the Thanksgiving Day turkey or the Super Bowl barbecue for good. Or consider travel: It will be hard to make people stop flying altogether, but many might consider travelling less or spending their next vacation closer to home.

The reason why people prefer moderation over absolutism can be traced to the concepts of identity and values. Most people in western societies have grown up on diets containing significant fractions of meat, fish, and dairy products, and many derive joy and pride from their country’s signature dishes: American hamburgers, German sausages, British fish and chips, French pot-au-feu, Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, and Italian ossobuco. They will treat any attempt of taking these pleasures away from them as a direct attack on their identity. Moreover, people are careful to subscribe to lifestyles that rub off on their identity. Vegetarians and vegans often strongly identify with their dietary habits and derive self-worth and pride from it. While that’s a positive force for the converts, it can be off-putting to those considering a lifestyle change. People may be open to behave like a vegetarian, but they don’t necessarily want to be one.

Absolutism also sits at odds with many people’s value system. The political culture in most western societies is deeply rooted in the political philosophy of liberalism. Banishing animal products curtails liberty and the freedom of choice. Of course, there is no absolute freedom of choice in any modern democracy. Governments are tasked to regulate the activities of its citizens so that everybody can live in harmony and prosperity. Much like alcohol and tobacco, animal products would technically be easy to regulate. But given that animal-based foods are staples of western societies, it is all but inconceivable that any such proposal would garner enough popular support. Just consider the outcry that proposals advocating meat-free days in canteens is causing at regular intervals. There is another reason why regulating animal products would be so contentious: meat eaters despise vegetarians because they feel judged by them as morally inferior. This phenomenon is more generally known as the do-gooder derogation, and in the world of dietary habits, there is even a special word for it: vegaphobia.

Moderation as a behavioural construct elegantly solves for these problems. It moves the dialogue out of the realms of ideology and morality and into the sphere of pragmatism and agency. It offers choice without restricting liberty. It decouples behaviour from identity. And it preserves culture without compromising sustainability. Moderation also carries the promise of reaching a greater audience: People will listen more if they don’t see the messenger as a missionary.

Some may argue that simply curbing animal product consumption, as opposed to eliminating it altogether, will not deliver enough greenhouse gas savings. Of course, moderation will only work if it gets us far enough along the spectrum between ‘too much’ and ‘good enough’. But demanding a zero-consumption policy will not necessarily move us further or faster along that spectrum. In fact, absolutism can cause inaction because its idealistic demands often paralyze people. In contrast, calls for moderation are more likely to trigger a shift in mindset and generate the momentum necessary to discuss more ambitious lifestyle changes further down the road. In some sense, moderation-based approaches are a bit like a catalyst in chemistry, lowering activation energy and accelerating reaction rates. They also hold the promise of engaging some of the most recalcitrant parts of our society, those who most fiercely resist a change of the status quo.

So how can we better leverage moderation as a paradigm of change to spur climate action?

First, we must accept that absolutist proposals are unlikely to find broad popular support in today’s political zeitgeist. There may be sound scientific arguments for absolutist positions, but people are so attached to some of their lifestyle choices that extreme positions often breed resentment and resistance. We stand a greater chance of bringing them along if our proposals don’t threaten their identities and values.

In the same vein, we should revisit the way in which we speak about the climate challenge. In recent years, the tone used in climate change communications has become much more vigorous and resolute. This is as much a result of our growing understanding of the perils we face as it is a reflection of the mounting frustration of scientists, journalists and NGOs over our lack of progress. Strong and sharp language conveys a sense of urgency and attracts greater attention, but it also creates a politico-philosophical landscape that is more accommodative to radical policy suggestions than to moderate ones. ‘We are facing imminent catastrophe and must stop flying immediately!’ is more coherent than ‘We are facing imminent catastrophe and suggest you start taking the train every once in a while!’. Softening our tone may sound counter-intuitive given the terrifying consequences of a warming planet, but if we let language restrict our toolbox for addressing a problem, we will miss opportunities to generate impact.

Second, we should revisit the use of numerical targets in anchoring the climate debate. Over the years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the problem of ‘preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ has been translated into a multitude of quantitative aspirations such as the ‘well below 2 degrees’ goal and the 1 trillion-ton emissions limit. These numbers are powerful because they translate an abstract problem into an actionable policy objective. The downside is that they create a frame of reference that is hard to escape. Everything needs to be measured, planned, and tracked against these targets.

This is particularly true for policy recommendations, which must identify and propose decarbonization pathways compatible with a ‘well below 2 degrees’ world. The only way to do so, given the ambition level of these goals, is to suggest drastic and often absolutist measures. This may be a sensible approach if there is a decent chance of success. Unfortunately, the world is not on track to reach the objectives of the Paris Agreement. But because these numerical targets have become entrenched heuristics, the global debate around climate action continues to be dominated by the most radical options. More moderate proposals are often pushed to the fringes or dismissed as ‘not ambitious enough’. The result is paralysis and, again, missed opportunities. De-emphasizing numerical targets would allow us to reframe the climate challenge from a math problem to a behavioural issue and give us access to the entire toolbox at our disposal for unlocking behavioural change, including moderation.

And finally, we need to expand our understanding of the scope for moderation in other emission areas. At the moment, the precautionary principle leads us to adopt a bias for absolutist positions. But climate change is about proportions, not absolutes. There is no scientific argument for absolute elimination of any particular lifestyle choice. Global warming will exacerbate as a function of net greenhouse gas emissions, as assessed across all planetary emission sources and sinks. As long as we keep a balance between emission sources and sinks, we can continue to hold on to our portfolio of lifestyle choices without eliminating any — we just have to reduce the frequency with which we engage in some of them. If we develop a better understanding of the different bundles of goods and services compatible with planetary boundaries, we will be able to introduce approaches of moderation in those areas that are particularly difficult to decarbonize, such as meat consumption and air travel.

Choosing moderation means preferring realism over idealism. Policy recommendations emphasizing moderation over absolutism stand a greater chance of reaching and engaging the masses. I hope we start adopting moderation as a paradigm of change more widely in addressing climate change.

 
Location
Related Focus Area
Sustainable Land Use
Related Goal
Goal 5: Reform food systems
Articles you may be interested in
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC’s work in Slovenia

Last November, the Slovenian parliament passed a motion to...

EIT Climate-KIC’s work in Slovenia
In The News
Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC Circular, Regenerative Economies Deep Demonstr...

The Slovenian parliament passed a motion to adopt an...

Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC Circular, Regenerative Economies Deep Demonstration
In our community
Cities in a 1.5 degree world: What is there to learn from Leuven?
Cities in a 1.5 degree world: What is there to learn from Leuven?
In our community
Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC circular economy proposal: Q&A with Kirs...
Slovenia adopts EIT Climate-KIC circular economy proposal: Q&A with Kirsten Dunlop
Innovation Spotlight
Elemental Water Makers’ solar desalination an asset as climate change ...

EIT Climate-KIC supported Elemental Water Makers is a water desalination scale-up that’s transforming water systems by enabling...

Elemental Water Makers’ solar desalination an asset as climate change threatens clean water
Innovation Spotlight
Zolar’s household solar kit is democratising the energy sector

Energy production and consumption are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, accounting for 80 per cent...

Zolar’s household solar kit is democratising the energy sector
In our community
Interview with policy and governance innovation experts at Madrid and Basque...
Interview with policy and governance innovation experts at Madrid and Basque Country Universities
In The News
COP25: Measurement and attribution of climate contribution to financiers

With the carbon costs of travel in mind, key...

COP25: Measurement and attribution of climate contribution to financiers
In The News
COP25: Madrid city side event

With the carbon costs of travel in mind, key...

COP25: Madrid city side event
In our community
Interview about Futures Literacy with Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNES...
Interview about Futures Literacy with Riel Miller, Head of Foresight at UNESCO
In The News
COP25: Climate leader insights

With the carbon costs of travel in mind, key...

COP25: Climate leader insights
In The News
OpenSurface land-use tracking platform launches at COP25

Pioneering AI, satellite and ground-sourced data technology drives more...

OpenSurface land-use tracking platform launches at COP25
In The News
COP25: Towards the systemic transformation

With the carbon costs of travel in mind, key...

COP25: Towards the systemic transformation
In The News
Helsinki launches Climate Watch to track city’s emission reductions

The City of Helsinki recently launched the ‘Climate Watch’,...

Helsinki launches Climate Watch to track city’s emission reductions
Opinion
Moments matter*
Michelle Zucker Director, Community Activation, EIT Climate-KIC
Moments matter*
In The News
Naked Energy secures €6.17 million in funding

Naked Energy, an EIT Climate-KIC supported solar energy startup...

Naked Energy secures €6.17 million in funding
In The News
First European cluster accelerator programme launched in Frankfurt

How to take clusters to the next level and...

First European cluster accelerator programme launched in Frankfurt
Innovation Spotlight
Ioncell’s fiber innovation could help drive the circular economy transitio...

The textile, garment and fashion industries generate tonnes of pollution each year and recycle very little, which...

Ioncell’s fiber innovation could help drive the circular economy transition
Opinion
The challenge of redesigning venture capital
Dominic Hofstetter Transformation Capital, EIT Climate-KIC
The challenge of redesigning venture capital
In Detail
Clean and Healthy Construction

Insights from the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen: Master Class and Market Dialogue for Clean and Healthy Construction. Why clean construction? Kevin Austin,...

Clean and Healthy Construction
Opinion
If we have figured out transformation, why is the world still in such a mess?
Susannah Fisher Research, EIT-Climate-KIC
If we have figured out transformation, why is the world still in such a mess?
Opinion
The tyranny of categorisation
Dominic Hofstetter Transformation Capital, EIT Climate-KIC
The tyranny of categorisation
Opinion
EIT Climate-KIC strengthens biodiversity through systems change
Felicity Spors Head of International Affairs, EIT Climate-KIC
EIT Climate-KIC strengthens biodiversity through systems change
Opinion
Why our cities must act as beacons for ambitious climate action
Tom Mitchell Chief Strategy Officer, EIT Climate-KIC
Why our cities must act as beacons for ambitious climate action
In The News
Biggest-ever global hackathon to tackle climate breakdown

Over 100 Climathon events around the world turn grassroots...

Biggest-ever global hackathon to tackle climate breakdown
In The News
Global call for transformative solutions to tackle the climate emergency

EIT Climate-KIC launches Climathon Global Awards and Healthy, Clean...

Global call for transformative solutions to tackle the climate emergency
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC supported crop insurance project acquired by world’s largest...

The insurance sector is well aware of the rising...

EIT Climate-KIC supported crop insurance project acquired by world’s largest re-insurer
In The News
EIT Climate-KIC innovators celebrated at 2019 EIT Awards

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) has...

EIT Climate-KIC innovators celebrated at 2019 EIT Awards
Opinion
Part three: Climate action #NotinNewYork
Andy Kerr Director, UK & Ireland, EIT Climate-KIC
Part three: Climate action #NotinNewYork
In Detail
New EIT Climate-KIC supported report finds digital technologies can vastly a...

As part of the UN Climate Action Summit, the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Deloitte launched a report today, supported by EIT Climate-KIC,...

New EIT Climate-KIC supported report finds digital technologies can vastly accelerate the SDGs