Consumption injurious to the planet’s health

There has been a lot of buzz over the past several weeks about the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the climate goals set by each country for 2030. India made its own announcement quite dramatically on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s 146th birth anniversary. With a citation from the Yajur Veda and press statements that included some quotes from Gandhi, the policies seemed to be appropriate for a large and diverse developing country. Most observers also agree that the government has set ambitious goals and the sustainable development framework mentioned in the INDC is just what the country needs, given our energy challenges.

What most of these discussions do not address, or rarely mention, is “consumption”, the singular economic driver of climate change. The Indian INDC refers several times to the country’s sustainable lifestyle and low levels of per capita consumption and gently suggests that “[d]eveloped countries can certainly bring down their emission intensity by moderating their consumption.”

The dictionary meaning of consumption is the use of resources, primarily ones used to produce goods and services, all of which require energy. The electricity powering homes, fuel used to drive a car or take a flight, production and transport of clothes from Bangladesh or apples from Australia, are various forms of household consumption, which are all associated with the generation of greenhouse gases. It is fair to say therefore, that carbon is embodied (some use the term embedded) within the goods and services we consume and is associated with the entire life cycle of their production from the mining of raw materials to the disposal of waste in landfills.

Economic logic indicates that rich people everywhere and rich countries would have higher levels of consumption compared to the poor, and this is indeed borne out by facts. Each person in India on average emits about 1.8 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, but since the poor have few energy services, mostly for survival, their emissions are very low. In terms of averages, India’s per capita values turn out to be low in comparison with those of rich countries (e.g., 17 tonnes per capita for the U.S. and nine for Germany). A recent report from the Centre for Science and Environment called Capitan America shows how per capita consumption of virtually all goods and services is at least ten to thirty-fold higher for Americans than Indians.

Nevertheless, disaggregating consumption levels by income groups suggests that Indians too have a lot to answer for. About five per cent of Indians, constituting 60 million people (and most readers of this newspaper) consume at the same level as Europeans, but this is also growing at an alarming rate. Moreover, they set the aspirational bar for most other Indians moving up the economic ladder, which itself demands that we be less sanguine about our “sustainable lifestyle”.

Carbon footprints

Assume, for instance, that you decided to skip a flight to a meeting a thousand kilometres away, but joined the discussions by telephone instead. You would then reduce your footprint considerably since aircraft emissions are much higher than what is produced from your use of telephone towers and electricity for your phone call. Similarly, an Australian apple has embodied within it emissions from the flight or ship that it was carried in. Another way to follow this is that if one were to subtract all the carbon from the goods made in China and sold to foreign markets, then the emissions attributed to China would be much lower. If one added these emissions to the countries that consumed the foreign goods, theirs would be much higher. Consumption therefore, is at the foundation of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In the example above, I suggested that a technology, a phone, could help one reduce emissions, which is true. Therefore, if India were to switch largely to energy saving LED bulbs we could save a lot of electricity. With these savings in mind, the government has launched a National Programme for LED-based Home and Street Lighting. But studies also suggest that while improvements in technology are necessary, they are not sufficient, because of what is known as the “rebound” or “take-back” effect. If more efficient devices imply lower energy prices per level of service obtained, people tend to consume more wastefully than they otherwise would. What is needed then are conscious efforts to pay attention to lifestyles and their impacts on emissions.

Thus, while fuel-efficient cars are expected to reduce emissions, in the absence of a conscious shift in attitudes, habits and behaviour, people tend to drive longer distances simply because they save money on petrol or diesel. Along with technology that can reduce emissions, therefore, we also need to alter our lifestyles, sometimes quite radically.

How can we make these changes? The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that a sustainable development pathway for the world depends on two distinct types of decoupling. The first is that of “material resource consumption (including fossil carbon) and environmental impact (including climate change) from economic growth (‘dematerialisation’)”. The second is the “decoupling of human well-being from economic growth and consumption”.

In order to really make these kinds of transformative changes a reality, we need innovation and technology, but to change lifestyles seriously, we will need to wrestle with multiple vested interests, reframe the political economy landscape, and craft new institutions that promote sustainability. As of now, neither India nor any other country appears to be considering these medium term requirements to deal with climate change or sustainability. And herein lies the crux of the challenge.

(Sujatha Byravan is Principal Research Scientist at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology & Policy, Bengaluru.)

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 5:10:28 PM |

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