1.5° — A life we can desire

By Juha Leppänen


Restrictions. Injustices. Sacrifices. Change.


It is through words like these that we talk about the climate crisis. No wonder it feels difficult. 


For the past 13 years, Demos Helsinki has studied what a low-carbon life would look like in practice. The learning? Some individuals already live a 1.5° life today. Others have begun picturing it and making small steps to get there. 


Now, with COP26, it’s time to build a 1.5° life that everyone aspires to live in. One can make carbon-neutral decisions here and there, but what kind of a life we live in the 1.5° future remains unclear.


COP26, while enormously important, cannot escape its own blatant technocracy. While essential, negotiations between nations are not the most inspiring for citizens in the front lines of the climate crisis or for mainstream audiences. People are increasingly recognizing the importance of climate action, but feel uncomfortable with unfair or low-quality policies. For example, a recent study revealed that it is the wealthiest 1% that needs to make the most considerable lifestyle shifts. But the level of collective action required will never be possible if the leap from our current situation to a carbon-neutral life seems daunting, the changes difficult, and the resulting lifestyle a vague picture of misery and privation.   


What if… we imagined a 1.5° life that is within reach and worth desiring? 


10 years ago, we started a process of imagining how housing, mobility, and food would look like in a carbon-neutral society, together with gatekeeper organizations that influence how our life looks in practice. What are the mobility services we use? How and what do we eat? Where do we go on holiday? In 10 years, our selection of sustainable choices has increased and made choices like a vegetarian lunch or green electricity easier in some places — not so much in others. While many of the early experiments are now mainstream, we need to take the next step in building a 1.5° life that is within reach for everyone.


Some individuals already live in the 1.5° future. And they feel good about it. Many others feel they could. 


Imagining our sustainable future is not mere daydreaming. There’s a link between the ability to imagine alternatives to the current environmental situation and pro-environmental behavior. Also, actively visualizing a sustainable future changes the self-image towards a more pro-environmental one. Imagining oneself in a sustainable future helps overcome the inertia of the status quo and reduces the emotional resistance towards making changes. Assisting people to imagine a desirable and achievable sustainable future increases the likelihood of them taking action to reach it.


Imagining this future, therefore, makes it easier not only for individuals to make necessary changes in lifestyles, but also for businesses to provide new products and services that make 1.5° life possible, and for governments to make decisions on regulations needed to make 1.5° life possible for everyone. 


Our findings

Based on our research, we have some ideas of how this re-imagining could look, and we think they’re worth sharing.


  1. 1.5° life is reality: Today it is possible for many to live a 1.5° life and it turns out the changes aren’t just about what we need to sacrifice. Read the stories of three Finns living in cities who plan to cut their carbon footprints in half by 2030. To get some inspiration on relevant and practical actions, we worked with Sitra and D-mat to create a list of 100 smart acts.
  2. Understanding concrete carbon impact: We employed an accurate and holistic carbon footprint calculator to understand what changes are relevant and impactful for individuals towards a 1.5° life. Such new methods are needed in order to understand what 1.5° life consists of.
  3. Cities and the public sector as steerers: A key finding from our recent study with three Finnish cities was an apparent one: society-wide changes are only possible with regulation, infrastructure, and incentives. 1.5° life requires a city and society that supports it. In the end, living 1.5° life is about access to well-functioning public transport, affordable housing not too far from work, and living in a culture that incentivizes cycling and walking.
  4. Goods and services: Scalable sustainable alternatives will need to be available on the market. From electromobility to renewable heating and energy, to delicious and inexpensive plant-based food available everywhere, businesses will need to build services and products that are desirable and equitable.


A life worth desiring

1.5° life can be an aspirational agenda for our generation. An agenda in which every individual, every community can find their role. An agenda in which private companies and civil society know how to contribute. An agenda in which politicians can feel empowered to make decisions that make life better for everyone. 


We know it’s a future we need. It can also be a future we desire. Next, we need to make it tangible for everyone.


Back during the world expo in 1939, there was a very important exhibition called Futurama. Futurama was funded by General Motors and it imagined a life that was based on one technology – the car. A life in which individuals could live wherever they wanted, yet go to work and spend their free time as they wished. A life worth desiring. 


We believe an equally desirable life is possible in the 1.5° future. But it requires imagination. It requires work. We need to come together in an exercise to devise how it looks and what is our role in it. We have started to work on this, but would love you to join us. Drop a line if you want to make it tangible together.



Feature Image: Mika Baumeister / Unsplash