Climate Change and the Consumption Trap

Climate Change and the Consumption Trap

It took a major financial crisis to slightly slow down the global emissions of greenhouse gases. According to the International Energy Agency, emissions dipped in 2009 due to the recession and then climbed back to a record level just a year later. A new study from the Global Carbon Project confirms this trend and says 2010 saw the largest absolute jump in emissions in any year since the Industrial Revolution.

I couldn't help but contrast these grim numbers with the frenzy of the holiday shopping season. By now we are all well aware that we can make or break the economy through our purchasing habits.

I was feeling downright unpatriotic, having done less than my share of shopping this whole year, until I came across the clothing company Patagonia's full-page ad in the New York Times on Black Friday. Patagonia took a courageous stand and asked consumers to buy less. The ad went on to say, "Don't buy what you don't need. Think twice before you buy anything."

This raises an uncomfortable issue that's been literally swept under the rug for many years. After more than two decades of talking about sustainable consumption -- and in spite of advances in resource efficiencies and renewable energy -- we are not all that much closer to consuming sustainably. The fact is, it is enormously difficult to do this without actually reducing what we consume.

Take clean energy, for example. Supplies are currently limited, costs can be higher, and breakthroughs are still needed -- specifically in battery technologies, solar energy and biofuels -- before renewables can replace fossil energy on a large scale. In time, with the right investments and policies, the breakthroughs can happen but we are not there yet.

Moreover, the IEA estimates that 80 percent of emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already locked in because of existing power plants and new construction currently in the pipeline -- which would make it very challenging for emissions to peak in this decade and then decline per IPCC's stabilization scenario [PDF] to keep the mean temperature increase under 3 degrees C.

Can we rely primarily on energy efficiencies in the meantime? Up to a point, yes; but efficiencies are not a panacea for all our energy problems. Energy efficiencies are known to cause rebounds, which can reduce potential energy savings by stimulating additional energy use. Rebounds can occur economy-wide as well as at the level of individual consumers and firms.

On the materials side, most of us have participated in recycling for many years. And yet, closing the materials loop remains a challenge. Recycled materials clearly produce lower environmental impacts, including lower greenhouse gas emissions. But supplies are still limited, costs can sometimes be higher, and further technological advances are needed to make the collection and processing of recyclables more efficient. There are many similarities between the market struggles of recycled materials and renewable energy.

What about the food sector?  Isn't it more sustainable to eat organically produced food? Yes, with the caveat that several studies have noted lower efficiencies and yields in organic production -- so land use could increase as organic production expands. As far as locally produced food, greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly lower compared to food brought in from elsewhere -- unless the food is air-freighted -- and could be higher in some cases because of inefficient local transport.

My point is not that there are no good solutions -- there are many brilliant ideas in the pipeline. But virtually every solution available today is either incomplete or has a downside, and is not quite ready to operate at a scale that can make a big difference. We should still support the most promising solutions with our purchasing power and vote for policies that can take them further. We should certainly choose the environmentally preferable products when we do need to buy something.

But the question that I struggle with is this: Can we really consume our way to sustainability? Many of us are involved in helping companies reduce the impacts of their production, but what about when we go home and turn into consumers? Is sustainability only about what we consume and not how much we consume?

When I first started thinking about sustainability in the late 1990s, it occurred to me that we are caught in a consumption trap. As consumers we control the fate of the economy -- we are responsible for two-thirds of all economic activity (in the U.S.). We also want the latest conveniences and comforts, which in turn requires increasing incomes. The result is a virtuous cycle of economic growth and consumption -- except for worsening climate change and resource depletion that can't be reversed.

Capping greenhouse gas emissions globally through tradable permits would have been one way to cut through this complexity and impose a strict limit on what economic activity can do to the planet's climate. As the world's major emitters mull over lesser options at the United Nations climate conference, I am reminded of the economist Herman Daly's words from the 1970s: "Sustainable development is about sufficiency as well as efficiency."

Shopping cart photo via Shutterstock.