We humans are used to solving problems by just throwing money at it. Financial crisis? We stimulate the economy. Greece going bankrupt? Let’s collect a financial support package. Humanitarian crisis? Bring out your purses and give money for aid and supplies. Yet there’s one problem we won’t be able to buy our way out of: climate change.
It’s true that investments are necessary to achieve a sustainable energy transition. But when one of the main drivers behind global warming is overconsumption, we need to do lots more than just invest: we need to adapt new habits, and explore climate-smart ways of living, travelling, eating and consuming – or in many cases, avoiding consumption. We’re talking about a major change in social norms and the image of prosperity.
As climate change has gotten more and more attention both in the media and among the public, we’ve seen an increasing amount of companies popping up, offering so-called climate-smart alternatives for mugs, straws, clothes – you name it. As tempting as it is to think we can stop global warming simply by buying reusable straws, clothes made of ecological cotton, and shoes from recycled plastic, the only thing we really achieve is a better conscience.
One of the things that frightens me the most are products marketed as carbon neutral. In practice, this means that the emissions caused during the manufacturing and distribution of this product has been compensated for, for example by planting trees or buying emission allowances. For many consumers, a carbon neutrality label seems to indicate that buying the product won’t cause any harm to the planet. Well, picture this: we’d want to mark all products out on the global market with a carbon neutrality label. Where would we find enough land to plant trees to compensate for these emissions? How can we buy enough emission allowances to cover these products, when industries are continuously reducing their emissions due to stricter legislation, regardless of carbon compensation markets?
It’s simply impossible to compensate for the global trade in the long-term, and it is completely irresponsible to give consumers the illusion that it is. Global warming can’t be stopped by consuming “better”, only by consuming less.
Green growth is based on the theory that it’s possible to decouple economic growth from environmental pressure. Advocates of green growth often mention increased efficiency, service economy, and circular economy as enablers for sustainable growth. There’s just one thing that doesn’t really make sense: on a planet with finite resources, how can we possibly achieve infinite growth?
During the past six months, this problem has been on my mind on a regular basis. So far, the only practically infinite resource I can think of is solar energy. There’s more than enough solar radiation reaching our planet each second to power our demands even as it grows. What services can we then produce using electricity and heat from solar energy only? Most services use not only electricity, but also some material. Content creation is however one thing that can be done using only electricity for powering data centers and computers – think YouTube videos, Instagram posts, and online media. So, is it possible for us to achieve economic growth simply by increasing content creation?
Considering how the world works today, it seems very unlikely. Content creation generates revenue by selling ads, which gives a return on investment because they make people purchase products and services. In 2019, the global digital ad spending was estimated to be 330 billion US dollars. If we assume the average ad is paid back in full, that’s a lot of products and services sold.
What would be more realistic options then? First of all, we need to actively reduce emissions, not just compensate them. The easiest way to do this is to avoid unnecessary consumption. A good mantra to use is use what you have, borrow, buy it second hand, or if you need to buy something new, buy high quality that will keep for a long time. The second easiest is to increase the share of renewable energy. Here the consumers’ role is smaller, but still important as consumers also act as voters, politicians, and decision makers within companies. The most important factor, and maybe the most challenging, is however to change people’s image of prosperity. It is not our big house, the fancy car, and the trendy outfits that make us happy. What really gives our lives value is relationships – spending time with our loved ones, sharing experiences, and knowing that we have people around us that care about us.
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Anna is an energy engineer with a passion for emission data visualisations and trail running.
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