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New Emissions Measurements Show "Green" Consumerism Failing
Amanda Reed, 7 Jun 10

Has "green consumerism" reduced climate emissions? Not according to John Barrett.

Last week Barrett (from the Stockholm Environment Institute's York (England) office) gave a talk in Seattle titled "A Sustainable Consumption and Production Approach to Climate Change Mitigation.” Barrett presented his team’s latest research on consumption-based, community-scale greenhouse gas emissions inventory methods, policy implications, and lessons learned from his work with the United Kingdom government and over 40 local governments throughout Europe.

The most intriguing part of his presentation was his exploration of 'consumer emissions,' which are not usually included in emissions reporting. His central question was, "Who's responsible for emissions: the producers or the consumers?"

25-30% of emissions come from products and services that are produced in one country then traded to another, according to Barrett. How we source those emissions as a global community is important... especially if we're serious about creating a pathway to a future in which total global emissions level off, then decline. The clearer we are about where emissions come from, the better prepared we'll be to correctly target where reductions need to be made, and the scale at which we'll have to tackle those reductions.

As it stands now, most emissions data focuses on the production side of our consumer society. For example, the factory that makes your gadget in China contributes to China's emissions count. When that same gadget is shipped to a UK consumer it does not count towards the UK's emissions count. Barrett showed that the result of this approach has led to what he called "carbon leakage." He said that as countries become more and more service based, with demand for products and services met by imports rather than production, the overall amount of carbon leakage goes up. "The volume of emissions that are not counted goes up." This lack of accounting for growing imports of consumer goods shows up directly in the UK's emissions records. According to Barrett's data, there is a discrepancy between the UK's Kyoto emissions reporting and his research into UK consumer emissions: the Kyoto numbers show an overall emissions reduction in the UK, but consumer emissions have actually gone up in the same time period!

The truly startling revelation from Barrett's data on the growth of UK greenhouse gas emissions from consumer goods and services was the degree to which strategies for "greening" consumption have failed:

  • "Green products" have less impact in reducing emissions than most people think. The growth of green consumption has not reduced emissions.
  • Gains in emissions reductions from technological advances have been wiped out by increases in consumption as people demand higher levels of affluence.
  • The UK's 50-70% of gains from home energy conservation are lost when they're redirected for other resource consumption, by people buying other goods and services with the money saved.

According to Barrett, if we are serious about limiting climate change to two degrees, then the scale of change needed is great. It's impossible to achieve adequate reductions in global emissions through increased efficiencies in production alone. Consumer emissions must also be targeted and reduced, and the longer we delay the fewer options there will be and the harder it will be.

The big question then is: How can we drive systemic lifestyle changes broadly and more effectively than by telling people to stop consuming, or to consumer "greener" products? Barrett said that some economists are exploring one possible solution: a move toward a future of “steady state economics,” in which a high quality of life exists with no economic growth, since economic growth has (so far) driven growth in material consumption.

Others argue that if we want to have economic growth without rising emissions, we need to do a much better job of decoupling quality of life and well-being from energy and resource use. A growing movement of people are looking at land use, transportation, energy and food systems, finding ways of providing a better quality of life in more urban and post-consumer patterns, and re-thinking how we define and deliver affluence at a systemic level away from the consumption of stuff. That such a redefinition and redesign is possible is at the core of bright green thinking.

Opinions can vary about how to move forward. The message, in the meantime, is clear: we can't shop our way into the future.

For more information on John’s work, see the following links:

For another account of Barrett's presentation see Eric de Place's piece at Sightline.

For more on these topics:
Offshoring Emissions, Historical Carbon and Climate Imperialism

What If Climate Action Actually Accelerates Economic Growth?

New Study Tracks 'Outsourcing' of Emissions Caused by Consumer Products

Defining a ‘Carbon Neutral’ City

Zero, Now

Image of shopping cart courtesy of Flickr photographer busysignals under the Creative Commons License.

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Watch out for the deceptive technique of a country claiming that they will be/are reducing the carbon intensity of their production/consumption by increasing efficiency and decoupling growth from emissions resource use. Translated, that means that they will still be increasing their emissions/resource use - maybe even faster than before! - but the amount of "stuff" they produce and use will be more per unit of emissions etc. than it was previously.

If they kept their levels of "stuff" the same, then it would achieve a reduction but that's not what they are planning with this apparent deceit.

Posted by: Nick Palmer on 8 Jun 10

I appreciate Barrett's comments because there is a lot of information missing in the climate change discussion.

I work for a very specialized consulting company that investigates temperature at molecular levels. My background is engineering and electrical energy provision. Urban Heat Islands are reported to cost the City of Los Angeles alone over 100 million dollars a year in energy responding to them. We did several years of advanced temperature work to find the cause of urban heat islands as well as how billions in energy costs are used responding to them. The results contradicted our own educations in electrical energy provision because education is literally blind to temperature. We use calculators for measuring energy consumption and we missed critical data that couldn't be seen before.

When we develop areas and build, we are supposed to reflect solar radiation from the exterior of buildings or the buildings will be radiated and generate heat they aren't designed for. Here is a link to infrared images we did as well as time-lapsed infrared videos showing how fast building development is radiated early in the morning. The massive energy costs are responding to symptoms without addressing the cause. Paint, coatings or shade can eliminate the heat islands and the energy use responding to them. Http://

That doesn't take away from the importance of Barrett's comments, in order to produce goods and services we create emissions which are toxic to health. 2 years ago it was reported that the United States discards 11 million cell phones a month, imagine the energy and emissions to build those phones.

Posted by: Thermoguy on 8 Jun 10

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