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New research has identified where households can make a real difference to their greenhouse gas emissions – and cutting down on red meat and purchasing an electric vehicle are top of the list.
Researchers at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research - a not-for-profit, non-partisan research institute - compared information from the 2006/7 and 2012/13 Household Economic Surveys and found many opportunities for ordinary Kiwis to reduce their impact on climate change.
“A recent nationwide survey showed that while 87 percent of Kiwis have at least some concern about climate change, only 42 percent believe that their actions can make a difference. While most households are taking at least some actions that reduce emissions, the actions they are choosing are not necessarily the ones that will have the biggest emission benefits,” said Suzi Kerr, Senior Fellow at Motu and one of the researchers involved in the project.
“We’re hoping our research will help householders understand the impact of their spending choices and identify the most significant opportunities to mitigate their impact on emissions. Climate change solutions are possible at the individual level and we hope this shows people how to take effective action,” said Suzi Kerr.
Other ways for households to reduce their emissions are to reduce their consumption of dairy products, increase their car’s fuel efficiency, or shift from driving to walking, cycling or public transport. Households can also have some impact on their emissions by decreasing their home electricity use and international travel.
“Food, transport, housing, and utilities account for 82 percent of household emissions. Households looking to reduce their emissions should look at what they consume in these categories first, so they can make meaningful change,” said Suzi Kerr.
Composition of average household emissions
“People make different life choices that impact on their consumption. If you are in a higher-income bracket you can take a higher-paid job or a more rewarding but lower-paid position; live in a leafy suburb and drive an SUV or live close to work in a lively urban environment and use public transport. I’m not saying we should all be non-driving vegans, but it’s good to understand our impact on emissions,” said Suzi Kerr.
At each level of income, the highest-emitting households had nearly twice the emissions of the lowest-emitting households.
The differences in emissions within income groups are mainly driven by differences in transport choices. The richer, higher-emitting households fly internationally more often. Regardless of income, the households that emit the most drive more.
There is also some difference in diet, with the higher-emitting households eating more meat and dairy than the lower-emitting ones.
The graph below looks at the variation in household emissions for two-person households with the same level of expenditure.
Variation in emissions by household expenditure
Household energy is the way a house is powered – usually by electricity and gas, but also including coal and firewood.
“So it’s perfectly possible for two people with relatively high expenditure to emit almost as little as two people with low expenditure but different spending habits,” said Suzi Kerr.
The research also found that, on average, household expenditure and household size and composition are the most important determinants of a household’s emissions. Emissions also tend to increase with household age and tend to be higher in South Island households, possibly because of the colder climate leading to an increase in heating.
“There is, however an ‘Auckland effect’ in international air travel emissions,” said Suzi Kerr. “This is possibly because Auckland has a high population of immigrants who travel overseas more frequently.”
The Motu researchers, Corey Allan, Suzi Kerr and Campbell Will, also discovered New Zealand households are emitting 4.6 percent less greenhouse gas than they used to. This is a fall of approximately one tonne of emissions for an average two-person household that spends $80,000 per year.
“That’s the equivalent of the emissions involved in taking five round trips from Picton to Bluff,” said Suzi Kerr.
Emissions from consumption by individual households may be falling, but due to the rise in New Zealand’s population, the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere from Kiwi households’ overall consumption is increasing.
While household emissions have fallen on average from 2006/7 and 2012/13, the decrease is smaller for wealthier households. International air travel emissions for wealthier households increased significantly between the two surveys and this is the cause of the smaller decrease in emissions for the wealthiest segment of society.
“You can, of course, be wealthy and choose not to travel internationally,” said Suzi Kerr. “But we are seeing wealthier households travelling internationally more often.”
Emissions from international air travel by expenditure decile (thousands)
Motu researchers have worked with ChewyData and the NZ Herald to compile The Household Climate Action Tool, hosted by NZ Herald Insights. This uses averages of annual spending and household purchases to help people figure out their household’s best choices to reduce emissions. As incomes rise, individual household emissions may also go up.
“The Household Climate Action Tool allows people to see the result of the choices they make and gives them more information about the best ways for their household to save emissions,” said Suzi Kerr.
The report Are we turning a brighter shade of green? The relationship between household characteristics and GHG emissions from consumption in New Zealand by Suzi Kerr, Corey Allan, and Campbell Will was funded through Motu’s programme “Shaping New Zealand’s Low-Emission Future,” supported by the Aotearoa Foundation.