Andreas Späth

Are we consuming ourselves to death?

2016-03-30 12:11

Andreas Wilson-Späth

As global temperature records keep tumbling with an eerie regularity, as humans are pumping carbon into the atmosphere faster than at any time since the dinosaurs croaked 66 million years ago and as we’re entering a sixth worldwide mass extinction of plants and animals, who is to blame for the world going to an environmental hell in a hand basket?

Is it profit-driven industrialists intoxicated by a perpetual economic growth trip, or is it consumers like you and I who acquire and devour everything the former can produce and constantly ask for more? It’s a bit of both, isn’t it? The actions of the people on the one side promote and reinforce the behaviour of those on the other in a viciously interlocking cycle of mutually assured destruction.

What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that consumers bear a degree of responsibility that has been underestimated in the past.

By evaluating the requirements and effects households around the world have on material, water and land use, a study recently published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that consumers are directly responsible for about 20% of all carbon impacts as a result of such activities as heating, cooling and lighting their homes and using their cars.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that the many manufactured and processed goods we use, from frozen veggies to laptop computers, have a more damaging effect than taking long showers and driving your own vehicle to work.

If these indirect impacts are taken into account, the authors of the study suggest that household consumption accounts for over 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 80% of global water usage.

That’s because making things requires a lot of resources, raw materials and energy, and it generates plenty of air, water and soil pollution. Take food production, for instance. It takes over 15 000l of water to produce one kilogram of beef, 17 000l  to make a kilogram of chocolate and more than 1 000l of cow’s milk. According to the paper, “food accounts for 48% and 70% of household impacts on land and water resources, respectively, with consumption of meat, dairy, and processed food rising fast with income”.

There may be a temptation to throw your hands in the air in defeat and the assumption that we’re all equally culpable for the state of things. But we’re not, as the research clearly shows. It’s no surprise that the highest rate of consumption happens in rich countries and among well-to-do people.

According to Diana Ivanova, a co-author of the paper, “the countries with the highest consumption have about a 5.5 times higher environmental impact as the world average”. The USA leads the pack with per capita carbon emissions of 18.6 tonnes CO2 equivalent (a measure that accounts for a variety of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide and methane), followed by Luxembourg and Australia.

And we can’t just blame China either. “If you look at China’s per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small,” says Ivanova. “They produce a lot of products but they export them. It’s different if you put the responsibility for those impacts on the consumer, as opposed to the producer”.

So what can we do to make a difference? "We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses," she explains. "But between 60-80% of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well."

One simple way of doing so would be to reduce our consumption of meat. A difficult prescription for omnivores like me to swallow, but the evidence is clear. A recent study suggests that simply sticking to commonly recommended dietary guidelines that promote fruit and vegetables while limiting red meat, sugar and total calories could cut food-related carbon emissions by 29%. Widespread adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet around the planet would lower food-related emissions by some 63% and 70% respectively.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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