Halina Brown: The relentless household carbon footprint creep: US and China

Since last summer I have been writing about the relentless upward creep of household consumption (and carbon footprint) with growing household income. The question that preoccupies me is this: can income and private consumption be decoupled? In my view this is one of the most important challenges for the SCORAI community: the researchers, activists and policy makers. In the case of U.S. I saw merit in creating amenities-rich affordable housing communities in low-impact cities such as New York by way of co-operative ownership model. I obsessed about re-framing the meaning of good life and being green in the post-soviet Europe, which in at least some cases seems intent on reproducing the Western model of social progress based on consumerism. And now I raise the urgency of my question by looking at China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants aspiring to good life, and with an official government policy to increase domestic consumption.

A few days ago, Dominik Wiedenhofer sent to the SCORAI listserv an article he co-authored—titled Unequal household carbon footprints in Chinawhich shows carbon footprint of Chinese citizens as a function of income. Apart from having the absolute scale on the vertical axis about 6-7 times smaller than in the US (as well as differences in data collection and income metrics) this graph looks eerily similar to the US graph, published by Ummel in 2014. In the US the top 10% earners contribute 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from households while the bottom 40% of earners contribute 20% of emissions. In China, the top 10.6% of earners emits 19% of total while the bottom 47% emits 25% of total. The conclusion is rather straightforward: tell me your income or income category and I will tell you what your carbon footprint is (statistically speaking).

There are two ways to look at these two graphs. One is to assume that all socioeconomic classes aspire to emulate the lifestyles of those above them in the income ladder, as is largely the case in consumer society, and view the consumption treadmill among the emerging global middle classes as inevitable, with all its social and ecological consequences. I choose a different perspective. This is an opportunity to figure out how to decouple household income from consumption. And I do not mean the debunked myth of decoupling growth from energy consumption through technology. I mean social and cultural change. With regard to moderately affluent families whose basic needs are met for housing, mobility, food, social identity and other essential amenities for a dignified life what kind of policies, campaigns, incentive and infrastructures will channel their growing income to non-consumerist pursuits of good life.

There is a massive body of research literature, experience and tacit knowledge that can inform this type of inquiry. We just need to focus.

4 thoughts on “Halina Brown: The relentless household carbon footprint creep: US and China

  • Good thoughts Halina. You may recall that at SCORAI in Maine we had a debate on wealth (rather than income) and sustainability which touched upon some of the points you raise. The following observations may be pertinent. First, in most cases of environmental / pollution regulation the axiom is to tackle the ‘low hanging fruit’ first. In other words, target policy on the smallest number of worst cases, and then work your way down. Hence I would argue that policy should not firstly be concerned with the moderately affluent, but the ‘very high net worth’ individuals. Second, we really have to get past carbon emissions or their equivalent as a measure of ecological burden; it is simply too narrow. As an extreme example, what about those very wealthy individuals who spend large sums of money on rhino horn powder to improve their sexual performance? As the rhino numbers continue to fall, so the price of horn goes up and makes it even more alluring as a symbol of financial (and then sexual) power. What about blood diamonds? What about the land occupied by these people to the exclusion of others? What about the social resources diverted to providing for their comfort and lifestyles? I agree it is difficult to measure the impact of the lifestyles of the highly affluent, but it is important to try. One other, rather contrary, thought. With very great wealth it matters not to buy a watch for £30,000 or even £2.5 million, and this is a sort of decoupling! There are real limits to the ability to use wealth on an individual level – a wealthy person can only be in one car or one plane or one house at a time. So it seems we need to consider that society does create mechanisms for relieving the wealthy of some of their cash, and that perhaps when we measure environmental impact we need to include a sort of inventory of (the environmental burden of) possessions rather than annual consumption.

  • Good thoughts, Peter. Thank you. Here are my two quick responses.
    1. while carbon footprint is a narrow measure my guess is that is it a pretty reliable indicator of several other environmental burdens, such as water use (for all these swimming pools and great lawns and golf courses in deserts), rhino hunting as so on. Not all, of course, because red meat diet, at least in the industrialized countries, is not directly linked to wealth.
    2. your point about elasticity in energy use at the top income is well taken. There are actually estimates out there int he literature and if you believe the numbers the elasticity is not as great as one would expect: maybe 0.85-0.9.
    3. as to which segment of the population to target first: this is a complicated question. The super rich may be the most efficient choice of a target but politically the most difficult. And furthermore, price signals probably are irrelevant to them. There are pros and cons for addressing each income category. My main point is that in discussing interventions it is necessary to tailor them to socioeconomic groups. And I hope that the SCORAI community would do just that.

  • Can income and private consumption be decoupled? That begs the question, where would extra income go? Generally income would go toward either immediate consumption or savings / investment for additional future consumption. Certainly consumption patterns could shift to less C02 intensive uses, relatively decoupling, but likely not significant enough to change global trends as all forms of consumption have a material root. Ultimately income levels themselves needed to be questioned (and income disparities) as income will eventually flow downstream into consumption to some degree of resource intensiveness. The Degrowth literature has a lot to offer in this regard – questioning the goal of increasing incomes in the first place.

  • Unfortunately we have to deal 5000 years of human civilization that have equated high consumption with high social status. Changing this connection is no easy thing. As I have suggested elsewhere, we need to learn from the lessons of human cultures that have managed to be relatively egalitarian in the long run. Most of them have what anthropologists call “leveling devices” which put extraordinary financial and social obligations on those people/families who accumulate wealth. Many also have belief systems which directly connect the wealth of the few with the poverty of the many. This suggests a practical question of how we can revive the sin of gluttony, shame the rich, and raise a generation that recognizes limits.

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