Photo: AP Photo/Michael Sohn

We’re all fossil fuel junkies, and the dangerous byproduct of our habit—CO2—is killing the planet. We need to quit, but since we’re unlikely to go cold turkey, it’s probably time for an intervention.

In Berlin, such an effort is underway with a year-long living lab experiment. One hundred households are aiming to cut their carbon footprints 40 percent over the course of this year. Since the lab launched in December, several of the households have already reached that goal in the first few months.

The biggest reductions come from actions like choosing energy providers that don’t burn any coal, switching to public transit, or car sharing with electric vehicles. In their homes, some of the participants have stopped using clothing driers and starting use low-energy appliances like induction stovetops.

Scientists with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research are guiding the Climate-Neutral Living in Berlin project, and they’ve built up a support network of citizens, scientists, and other experts to study low-carbon life at the household level.

Along the way, social scientists will study how and why people make the choices they do, and the findings will guide the carbon drawdown on larger societal scale, the project managers said in a statement. That could include specific government policies, as well as finding better ways to connect consumers with the growing supply of climate-friendly products and services.

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Currently, the average German has an annual 11-ton CO2 footprint (the U.S. average is 16.5 tons), which needs to be cut 80 percent, to about 1 or 2 tons, by 2050, according to project manager Fritz Reusswig, with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He said the KliB households are pioneers on the way to a climate-neutral Berlin, but warned that appropriate national- and European-level policy frameworks are also needed.

How much CO2 in a banana from Ecuador?

In a recent blog post on the project website, one of the families describes how they were inspired to join the project by their 12-year-old daughter, who came home from a school discussion on climate ethics determined cut their daily emissions. So far this year, they’ve reduced their CO2 footprint by 31 percent, or 13 tons, and have published a book about how they’re trying reach carbon-neutrality.

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The households can observe their carbon footprint in real-time with a tracker showing where emissions could be reduced—either by changing their electricity supplier or using public transit or adjusting eating habits. Preliminary results are available on a dashboard at the KliB website, showing, for example, that some of the households have already cut their carbon footprint by more than 60 percent. The website also answers questions like how much CO2 is released by eating a banana from Ecuador, or whether it’s climate-friendly to switch from butter to margarine (it is, by a long shot).

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities that consume more than two-thirds of the world’s energy. The KliB project in Berlin is part of burgeoning network of living labs aimed at finding the best path to urban sustainability. This field of science is growing so fast that, in 2016, scientists started creating a framework to compare living lab results from across Europe.

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Governance and sustainability expert Doris Knoblauch, with the Ecologic Institut in Berlin, told Earther that the real-world KliB experiment will show whether current energy transition scenarios are feasible, and said the behavioral aspects of the study are very valuable.

“From a psychological point of view, it will be interesting to see how do people respond to the cues. Will they react by saying it’s too much of a burden?” Knoblauch said. “We know many people feel it’s possible to reduce carbon, but at the cost of personal liberty, or of not being able to consume as much.”

“To what extent can we integrate changes of consumption and mobility behavior, and what kind of multiplier effect could this have, when they talk to their friends and neighbors?” she added.

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Knoblauch, who isn’t involved in the experiment but considered participating as one of the homes, thinks that if the households can attain the climate goals it will help put pressure on policymakers to implement CO2-reducing measures.

This is particularly relevant in the German climate and energy debate over targets for 2020 and 2030, milestones on the path to carbon neutrality required by the Paris agreement. It will make it harder for the new German government to walk back previous intermediate targets if there’s data showing they are more reachable, according to Knoblauch.

Saving energy in everyday life

Energy is a big part of the household carbon-cutting equation, according to Christopher Rasch, who represents Greenpeace Energy in the stakeholder group supporting the KliB households with options for smart energy management and consumption, including online tools.

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“Projects like these are needed to find the potentials that households really have to bring forward the energy transition and save energy in everyday life,” Rasch told Earher. “KLiB shows how this can work in reality—but to the participants and to the scientists, the results will also show the limitations that you have on the individual level. That’s where it’s the task of policymakers to establish a better framework to let, for example, (rental) energy projects boom.”

Greenpeace Energy invests in grassroots energy coops, but Rasch said the federal government’s push toward larger-scale European projects has slowed the formation of new local energy systems in recent years.

“When we talk about consumption, the spread of energy communities and decentralisation, we are—I think—still at the beginning,” he said, adding that the KliB experiment will help show “how to integrate very large amounts of green energy in the grid by demand side management, and shape the next stage of the Energiewende by bringing it into the household—and spreading it wide throughout society.”

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Bob Berwyn is a freelance journalist with a focus on the environment.