Preventing Problems Related to Climate Change Requires Changes in How Countries Look at Growth and Progress

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conveyed a strong message to the international community with its recent report, issued in early October in South Korea: the world has to act at once to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The planet is in trouble mostly because we consume far more than we need to. Photo: Colourbox

The report says that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to drop by around 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and by 100% by 2050.

“Limiting warming to 1.5 ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” said Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III, in a press release issued with the report.

Scientists at NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program say that making “unprecedented changes” in the international economy could be much easier if society drastically modifies the way it views economic growth.

Society has to go to zero emissions pretty much overnight. Whether we like it or not, this challenge won’t be met without the corresponding (overnight) changes in society. We need to start thinking, ‘Is the carbon footprint that comes from different economic activities actually worth it in terms of societal outcomes?’ There is potential to live fulfilling lives with much less environmental impact.

Gibran Vita, PhD Candidate, NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program.

They propose that fulfilling basic human needs with the minimum environmental cost should be the primary focus of economies—not growth.

Vita and his colleagues have recently published an article about their study in Environmental Research Letters.

More consumption doesn’t necessarily mean happier people

Vita and his colleagues planned to examine the carbon footprints that would be generated from meeting people’s basic needs. They used a system created by the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who defined categories of emotional, physical, and intellectual needs, such as subsistence, leisure, identity, freedom, and creation.

What’s unique about this approach is how it varies from conventional assessments of prosperity, which mostly measure money flows, such as GDP. “But people don’t necessarily benefit from more of everything, all the time,” Vita says.

“A driving belief is that focusing on external prosperity through consumption equals progress,” he said. “But that isn’t working so well for the poor who suffer many other types of deprivation, or for the rich in terms of mental health, or for the environment.”

So the scientists analyzed the goods and services consumed to meet people’s requirements based on Max-Neef’s categories and then calculated the footprint of each need. Then, to assess how well these “carbon investments” pay off with regards to quality of life, they used 35 objective and subjective indicators to measure how well people in various countries felt that eight different necessities were met.

For the “subsistence” need, for instance, they used indicators including standard of living, good health, and child survival rate. For the category “protection”, they explored access to sanitation and healthcare quality, among others.

Calculating carbon footprints and needs

To perform their calculations, the scientists used an open-access database called EXIOBASE 3, which contains information on economic activity and related greenhouse gas emissions and resources for 200 goods in 44 countries and five rest-of-the-world regions. The 44 countries signify the world’s largest economies and constitute 91% of global GDP with 65% of the world’s population.

They then used this information to work out what the carbon footprint might be for different countries for various needs.

The researchers learned that not all needs were equally polluting. Fulfilling subsistence and protection needs took half of the world’s carbon budget, while leisure, creation, identity, and freedom took most of the other half.

Participation and understanding were the most modest, taking up less than 4% of global carbon emissions.

The scientists then were keen to see if they could establish if it was essential to release as much carbon as was being released to meet those needs.

To work this out, they had to discover a way to objectively and subjectively measure how well basic human needs were met in different countries. Here they used data sources such as the OECD Labour Force and Time Use, the Central Intelligence Agency, the World Bank Indicators, and the Human Development Report from the UNDP.

The combination of twelve different databases enabled the scientists to calculate percentages that reflected how well citizens felt their human needs were fulfilled in the 44 countries that were evaluated.

The scientists then pooled these two calculations—the population percentage for which a need was met in each country and the carbon footprint that ensued from fulfilling that need for each country—to plot graphs and compute statistics.

For instance, for access to modern energy or sanitation, which was one of the indicators under the “protection” need, their assessment revealed that places such as the United States, Norway, and practically all Western countries had fully met this need. But, the carbon budget used to meet this need in these countries overextended beyond the point of apparent social benefits.

Much more carbon emitted than was needed

On average, the scientists discovered, meeting all of a person’s physical requirements—from reasonable housing and having good health to drinking clean water—required per-person carbon emissions of only 1-3 tons per year.

But when they equated this number to how much carbon countries really released per person to supply subsistence and protection, they found numerous differences.

A few countries, like Australia and the United States, released more than 6-8 tons per capita to meet physical needs. In contrast, the average that low-income countries used to meet these needs was close to 1 ton per capita.

However, Vita said, the numbers show the possibility for people in wealthy countries to be at least as happy and healthy as they are at present with much lower carbon emissions.

“It means we are overdoing it in a way,” he said.

Objective versus subjective

One crucial facet of this assessment is that the scientists measured needs by integrating subjective and objective information. For instance, subsistence is governed by good health, which is a subjective measurement, whereas child survival is an objective measurement.

So when the scientists studied the various graphs for the different needs, they discovered a pattern. When it came to objective measurements that were based on something physical, such as electricity access, they discovered a threshold above which more carbon emissions did not make a difference in the total outcome. What that meant was “more consumption didn’t match with greater satisfaction after a certain point,” Vita said.

These are, therefore, areas where countries could easily lower their carbon emissions without negatively impacting people’s well-being and health. These are also areas where slightly more carbon has a lot more benefit for the very poor.

In total, 14 of the 35 indicators the scientists used to outline needs displayed this relationship.

For 20 indicators, however, they found there was no relationship at all. Most emotional and psychological measures of needs did not match with their carbon footprints, meaning that they are most likely associated with other factors that are not related to consumption, such as strong social relationships, having free time, and enjoying everyday activities.

The scientists deduced from this finding that a number of aspects that contribute to a person’s quality of life are not enhanced by putting more material resources into them.

“We could only discover this pattern by looking at ‘human progress’ in terms of specific needs rather than by looking at traditional measures of progress, like higher GDP,” Vita said. “If we are going to make the fundamental changes called for in the IPCC report, this type of needs-centered view has to permeate institutions, businesses, households, and individuals.”

Rethinking society

So if the challenge of this era is to lower emissions while allowing people to prosper in their lives, what are the options?

“Beyond technology fixes, the safest and probably quickest option is to be mindful of what we are using all of this carbon for,” Vita said. “Policymakers could heavily incentivize sustainable lifestyles in order to cut carbon emissions without negatively affecting how people perceive their lives.”

Vita highlighted that making this kind of fundamental change will be easier for wealthy nations since they have already invested in infrastructure, housing, and other basic needs that less-well-off countries do not still have.

But emerging countries could pick up from the blunders that wealthy nations have made, he added.

The science points to the fact that we need to rethink society as soon as we can…both for the planet and for our species. Emerging countries have the golden opportunity to leapfrog directly to a more sustainable vision of development–and escape ending up locked-in to emitting carbon where no one gets a (well-being) bang for their (carbon) buck.

Gibran Vita, PhD Candidate, NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program.

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