Consumerism – the Cause of the Global Crisis
GDP is a measure of how much a country produces. CO2 emissions of how much it pollutes. There’s a very strong correlation between the two. Consumption means production which means pollution.
Everything in today’s society is set up for consumption. We’re constantly encouraged to want the latest thing; as Apple releases the iPhone 27 (a vast improvement over the iPhone 26…) it has already started work on the iPhone 28 (a vast improvement over the iPhone 27…). Today’s business model means Apple needs to keep growing; if it actually produced an iPhone everyone wanted to keep, well that would be bad. While Apple told us the iPhone 27 was great back then, its publicity will persuade us to feel unhappy with it now, because the 28 is so much better. Consume, enjoy briefly, feel dissatisfied, consume again etc etc. And in order to consume again, we work hard to earn money, producing some product or service that itself has a pollution footprint.
The consumer society is what is driving the Global Crisis. It isn’t making the population as a whole happier (always wanting something you can’t quite have isn’t satisfying). Automation is likely to increase the number of the unemployed and the underemployed; their hardship is even greater in a consumer society.
Visualizing a Solution
We can crudely summarize the Global Crisis by saying “as a population we consume more resources than the Earth can sustainably provide”. This overconsumption is the cause of the 5 Environmental Crises – climate change, pollution, water scarcity, falling biodiversity and food production. How this tragedy will play out if we continue growing earth’s population and maintain our current levels of overconsumption will vary from country to country. But it’s likely that we’ll start to run out of food and water in some countries in around 30 years; there will be widespread suffering in almost all countries in around 50 years; within 100 years populations will be declining in every country before a more rapid collapse.
It’s fundamentally the same overconsumption that leads to those 5 crises. We all drive a lot; this pumps CO2 out into the atmosphere and also causes air pollution (from the driving, but also in the refining and transportation of the fuel). We all drink bottled water; this causes plastic pollution (from the bottle), emits CO2 (from the manufacture of the bottle and its transportation) and falling biodiversity in the oceans (from the plastic). We all eat Brazilian beef; this was fed from pesticide-laced soy on land cleared from the Amazon, the cow burped out a lot of methane and then there is all the shipping – a lot of climate change, but with food production and biodiversity problems.
In these examples we see how one act of consumption contributes to two or more of these crises. The biggest crisis is climate change, so we can posit an approach – if we manage our carbon footprint successfully, then we will improve the other crises too.
Very approximately, global emission of around 20 billion tonnes of CO2 per year is sustainable, so we need to stay at or below that limit. We can express our emissions via the formula
CO2 Emission = Population * Avg Consumption in $ * Avg CO2 Emission Per $ Consumption
The important thing about this is that it suggests three ways to lower CO2 emissions – via lowering population or consumption in dollars or the average emission per dollar consumption. Given we are pumping out CO2 at around double the sustainable limit, any fix needs to be radical. We ought to
- Maintain the earth’s population at its current level.
- Reduce the average consumption in dollars – i.e. consume less.
- Make each dollar spent produce less CO2 – i.e. consume smarter.
Population growth predictions
Most alarmly, in both reports most of that population growth is projected to be in Africa, from today’s population of 1.3 billion to 4.3 billion in 2100. One can look at this optimistically – on average an African consumes less resources than, say, a European, so the growth might be sustainable. But I suspect that Africa will suffer more from climate change than just about anywhere else and I’m struggling to see any way that Africa could sustain such a population growth. As I write this, Larry Elliot seems just as alarmed in an article in the Guardian.
Society can only acceptably influence human population through medium to long term policies, so this makes it more imperative than ever that we consume less and consume smarter.
There are various technological fixes that, at least theoretically, could be used to reduce or manage climate change.
Carbon Capture allows CO2 to be removed from the air or an exhaust flue of a power station; this CO2 could then be sequestered (stored underground or in the ocean depths) or used to make a synthetic fuel. When used on power station, this technique reduces (but doesn’t eliminate) CO2 emission in the generation of electricity – but it doesn’t make it carbon-free. Direct capture from the air powered with renewable energy could, in theory, lead to negative CO2 emissions in the future, but the process requires a lot of energy and water. It’s has been shown to work in small scales but (to put it mildly) there’s considerable doubt the process could scale sufficiently.
It’s very likely that the cheapest way to remove a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere will always be to not put it there in the first place (the easiest way to put toothpaste back in the tube is not to squeeze it out in the first place). So we can’t pollute as usual because we’ll be able to develop this great technology that will be able to ‘unpollute’ in the future. We need to radically cut our CO2 emissions now.
Another technological approach to prevent the planet heating up is to modify the clouds in the atmosphere. Ideas include releasing aerosols in the upper atmosphere or changing clouds (e.g. spraying salt in them), both with the goal of reflecting more sunlight away from earth. The idea here is not to reduce our carbon emissions, but to take other steps to cool earth. This approach hasn’t been tried and is controversial; it’s geo-engineering with a high ‘unintended consequences’ potential.
In the next few years expect to hear dubious claims of technological solutions for climate change. But be very suspicious, especially if these claims are used to back a ‘pollute as usual’ policy. If something sounds too good to be true, it’s probably because it’s too good to be true.
I recently booked a flight (it should be my only flight of the year…) and, as I was paying, I was asked if I wanted to ‘offset’ the CO2 my journey would generate by paying less than 1 Euro. I know how much CO2 my flight will generate and I know the social cost of carbon so I would expect to be paying at least 100 Euros. It turns out that you can buy offsets for CO2 at around 1% of a well accepted social cost of carbon. I tried to find out more about what I would really be buying for my 1 Euro, but there was no information available on the web. It seemed like 1 Euro for a cleaner conscience, but maybe not for a cleaner planet. So I didn’t pay for the carbon offset.
At a much bigger scale the UK government recently announced plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. I’ve read several articles about this and they don’t go into details but there appear to be two big gotchas. The first problem is that it assumes that carbon can be captured from the atmosphere and stored – i.e. that a technological fix can be developed. The second is it proposes to use carbon credits, where the UK buys carbon offsets abroad and ‘subtracts’ these from its own carbon emissions to come out as ‘carbon neutral’.
So what happens when you buy a carbon offset? You typically contribute to some project that should reduce carbon emissions elsewhere – for example, you fund a wind farm construction or a programme to improve home insulation or the planting of some trees. Often this activity takes place in the developing world, because labor is cheaper there. The cost of the purchase can vary wildly – one report gives a range of $0.10 per tonne to $44.80 per tonne. One thing that affects the price is whether you get a certificate saying what you actually bought. In 2016, individuals purchased carbon offsets for 63.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – around 0.2% of the CO2 emissions that year – for a very low average price of $3.00 per tonne.
I’m very unconvinced about this approach. First, I suspect there is a lot of dubious accounting and even outright fraud in some of these schemes. Second, in many cases the offsets will be funding something that would have happened anyway (e.g. the wind farm would have been funded differently). But the biggest problem is it gives the western world a simple ‘solution’ and ‘justifies’ polluting – one report says that “Americans can purchase offsets and neutralize their carbon footprint for less than $100 a year”. Climate change can’t be tackled if the west keeps pumping out CO2; the developing world can’t plant enough trees or insulate enough roofs to compensate for that.
To paraphrase George Monbiot, the developed world needs to get its carbon problem under control rather than paying the developing world conscience money to pretend to do it for them. Just as you should be wary of ‘magic’ technological fixes for climate change, be very careful of dubious accounting fixes.