JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

Book Review of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle by Lloyd Alter

In the climate emergency, we are being called to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2030, and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We cannot stop the rise in global temperatures anymore; our best efforts now are to try to mitigate the rise. On our current trajectory, we are headed for catastrophe with more than 3°C warming.

Who Needs to Change?

When I say “we,” I mean the entire human population, as well as the whole Earth community, which is being irreversibly impacted by climate change. However, ‘we’ are not equally impacted by global warming; the vast majority of climate change’s disastrous effects are being felt by the poor, especially in the global South. Yet the cause of global warming, rampant greenhouse gas emissions caused by insatiable consumerism, is at the hands of the middle and upper classes of people, especially in the global North.  

Since I am part of the global North who is responsible for the problem, I am interested in what I can do, as an individual, to work toward the global goal of only 1.5°C warming by 2030. Thus, I was drawn to the book Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever by Lloyd Alter.

About the Author

Alter is a Toronto-based writer, speaker and sustainable design instructor. He is also the curator of Treehugger.com, a source for articles on ecological sustainability. To this work Alter brings his background as an architect, builder and developer. The fact that Alter is based in Ontario was a big draw for me, because I am looking for concrete information on how I, as an urban-based Canadian, living in the Ontario climate, can make sustainable ecological changes.

The 1.5-Degree Lifestyle

What does the 1.5-degree lifestyle mean in the title of the book? Referring to the 1.5°C warming that is the best that we can achieve in the next decade if we radically change production and consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, [1] the premise of Alter’s book is that “we are all collectively responsible for reducing our carbon emissions to keep under that 1.5-degree ceiling”.[2]

Learning From the Pandemic

While we know that governments and big business must take lead roles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bringing in clean technologies, there is a big role for individuals to play, as well. Alter’s book argues that we must not only look at the production side of things, the emissions released when goods and services are created, but especially the consumption of those goods and services. He points out that in the Covid-19 pandemic, when businesses were forced to close and people stayed at home, global emissions dropped by 7%. If you ever thought that your individual actions don’t make a difference in the face of the climate crisis, this is evidence that they do.

The shutdown of the pandemic was not predicted, and it wasn’t within our control, and there were other negative implications of the shutdown that neither Alter nor myself are trying to minimize. Nevertheless, it demonstrates clear evidence of the power that individuals have in the face of the climate crisis to make real changes in our individual patterns of eating, living, getting around, and shopping, in order to help the world move to a cap on warming to only 1.5°C by the end of this decade.

More Than a Guidebook

When I first read the title of this book, I assumed that it was going to be a fairly straightforward guidebook to help me make changes in my individual behaviour, a kind of self-help “10 easy steps you can take now!” type of book.

In that, I was mistaken. It is much more than a guidebook; it is an analysis of the complexity of the challenge in making individual choices regarding our consumption of goods and services. Through an examination of his own attempt to reduce his carbon footprint, Alter engages in a critical analysis of the complex social, economic and practical dimensions of our lifestyle choices. His analysis is accessible and straightforward; he is able to take complex information and data and make it easy to understand for the average reader like myself.

What is a 1.5-Degree Lifestyle?

So, what exactly is a 1.5-degree lifestyle? What does it look like? A 1.5-degree lifestyle is the collection of individual choices that we can make regarding our consumption that fits within the global goal of mitigating global warming to 1.5°C by 2030. Using data about how much carbon dioxide and its equivalents (CO2e)[3] are released by the everyday items we consume and activities that we engage in, Alter undertakes an experiment to live within the means of a 1.5-degree lifestyle himself. He then uses that experiment, where he was successful and where he wasn’t, to offer an analysis of the economic, social, and practical dimensions of what we consume and how we can limit our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Lifestyle Emissions

To begin, Alter needed to establish a carbon budget of “lifestyle emissions,” the emissions that we can control through our actions. He took the global budget of emissions that can be released and maintain only 1.5°C of warming, and divided that by the number of people in the world.

(Knowing that the global poor are consuming well under what they need to live with dignity and good health, and that the rest of us are consuming well over that amount, the global average goal allows for those living in energy poverty to increase their consumption to rates that allow for enough food, shelter, heating and cooking, and more).

Based on these numbers, Alter says, “we have a personal carbon allocation or budget target of ‘lifestyle emissions’…of about 2.5 tonnes per person, per year by 2030. Getting by on this is what we are calling the 1.5-degree lifestyle.”[4]

Breaking it Down

This is one of the few places I have found that gives us concrete numbers for what the mitigation of global warming to 1.5° would look like for each one of us. Further, using data he has found on the specific carbon costs of every aspect of our lifestyles, Alter breaks the 2.5 tonne goal into four key aspects of living: what we eat, how we live, how we get around, and what we buy.

In the course of delineating these areas of our lives, which he admits overlap with one another, Alter discovers some key ideas that, ultimately help to address the complexity of living a 1.5-degree lifestyle, as individuals who live within the collective of social, economic, political, and ecological systems.

Conscious Decoupling

One idea, especially when we examine why we consume the way that we do (he addresses this in chapter 8), is the importance of conscious decoupling, whereby we make choices in our lives to separate the activities we do and the things we buy from fossil fuels. The idea, here, is that we must begin to realize that we do not have to consume what we have and the way that we have been in order to live fulfilling, meaningful lives. Alter says, “The idea is that one can still live a nice life where there actually is growth, development, improvement, satisfaction, and a positive future without running on gasoline. A life where we can reclaim our power and generate a positive future.”[5]

Sufficiency Over Efficiency

And, the most important idea from this book, the central theme running throughout, is the need to prioritize sufficiency over efficiency. Currently in our world, the emphasis is on creating consumer goods and services that are more energy-efficient, that use less fossil fuels and release fewer greenhouse gases. However, we, especially those of us in the global North who are consuming the vast majority of resources, are using too much stuff, even if it is as efficient as possible. We have to radically reduce our consumption levels, globally (recognizing the need for the global poor to increase their consumption), in order to live within the 1.5-degree goal. “Sufficiency,” Alter argues, “is the key concept, the thread that runs through this book. It doesn’t mean the end of growth… But we can do it with a lot less stuff per person.”[6]

Sufficency, in a 1.5-degree lifestyle, is key. It means asking, Do I really need this? Will something less carbon-costly work instead? “One has to ask about everything that we do and buy: how much do we need? What is sufficient for the job?”[7] Moving from efficiency to sufficiency as our focus, both individually and collectively, will require both pragmatic and psychological shifts in our understanding of ourselves and what we need to thrive. Sufficiency, Alter points out, needs to move beyond an individual exercise and become promoted and prioritized within government policy.

The Abundant Life

As people of faith, both the idea of conscious decoupling and that of sufficiency dovetail with the idea of the abundant life promised to us by Jesus. An abundant life is not about what we have; it is about our relationships with ourselves, other people, the wider Earth community, and God. It is about what we do with what we have, in order to promote a world of healing, compassion, and justice. An abundant life centers around decoupling who we are from what we have, and about promoting sufficiency in our lives, rather than efficiency.

Readable, Accessible

Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle is a very readable, accessible book that will give you both food for thought and concrete ideas for where you can begin to change your own lifestyle to fit into a 1.5°C world. For people of faith, it offers a way to think and engage in lifestyle actions that more concretely express our discipleship in a time of crisis.


[1] It is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that calls for this in its latest report. For more, see my blog post, “Finding Hope in the IPCC Report on Climate Change,” June 9, 2022. https://jessicahetherington.ca/2022/06/09/finding-hope-in-the-ipcc-report-on-climate-change/.

[2] Lloyd Alter, Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever, (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2021), 4.

[3] Carbon dioxide is but one fossil fuel that contributes to global warming. Others include methane, nitrous oxide, and various fluorinated gases. Because they all have different levels of contributing to global warming and differing lengths of time that they remain in the atmosphere, scientists have translated these differences into what is called “carbon dioxide equivalents”, so that they can be evenly measured. This is referred to as CO2e.

[4] Lloyd Alter, Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever, (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2021), 4.

[5] Ibid., 35

[6] Ibid., 36-37.

[7] Ibid., 40.

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