Britain wants to cut its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Is this conceivable without fundamental changes in the way we live?
It may require us not just to drive fewer gas-guzzling cars and jet off to the sun less often, but also to redefine what we see as the basics of everyday living.
Our research on the Minimum Income Standard for the United Kingdom (MIS) has shown what members of the public think should be in a minimum household budget, to maintain an acceptable standard of living today.
This does not seem like an extravagant or wasteful living standard by today's norms. Families say that washing machines, but not tumble driers are essential; that you can make do without owning a car if you live in a city, though not in the country; that you do need a holiday but it can be in the UK, not abroad, and you can get there by coach.
Following up on this research, the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey estimated that if everyone were to live at this minimum, carbon emissions would be 38 per cent lower than at present (PDF). This sounds promising, but of course in reality many people will always be living above the minimum, and even such a large carbon reduction goes less than halfway to the target.
This evidence prompted the Centre for Research in Social Policy, who research MIS, to team up with the Surrey researchers and explore whether the public would accept that minimum standards could be reached by consuming in more sustainable ways.
We've started by defining what sort of consumption changes could have a tangible impact. This has proved less straightforward than we'd expected, since the complexity of environmental impacts makes simple rules like "if you switch to this product, you’ll produce 10 per cent less carbon" highly elusive.
Nevertheless, we've defined some interesting options which we are now exploring with the public.
Some are about eating: would people be willing to adapt the definition of a minimum diet to consume less red meat?
Some are about heating: could norms be changed so that people expect to keep their homes a little cooler and wear jumpers indoors in winter?
And some are about travelling: under what conditions would public or community transport become an acceptable norm in a rural area?
We're now talking to groups of members of the public to see how they respond to such tricky choices, asking them to reflect on their assumptions about necessary lifestyles. We’re getting some interesting answers - watch this space.