March 30, 2022
International Relations|Climate Change
Lifestyles for Climate Justice
By Nitin Desai
Lifestyles for climate justice
A change in consumption patterns of the rich is as essential for climate mitigation as supply-side innovations and even more crucial for climate justice
A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(1) has pointed out that climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater and coastal, and open ocean marine ecosystems. The policy approach to tackling this has tended to concentrate on supply-side changes, involving decarbonising production, particularly of electricity and energy-efficient appliances.
The speed and spread of climate impact now requires an equal emphasis on demand-side changes, an approach that was reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plea for a “Lifestyle for Environment” campaign at the November 2021 Glasgow meeting of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
This focus on lifestyles is an attempt to emphasise that the answer to anthropogenic climate change is not just technological changes on the supply side but also behavioural changes on the demand side. A recent study,
financed incidentally by a set of Chinese research organisations, estimates the carbon impact of consumption using detailed item-wise consumption data for 116 countries and provides a basis for working out where the responsibility for action on lifestyles is most necessary (2).
At the global level, the richest 10 per cent of the world population account for 47 per cent of carbon emissions and, among them, the richest 1 per cent account for 15 per cent of the emissions. The middle 40 per cent account for 43 per cent of the emissions, so that their per capita emission is more or less the global average. The poorest 50 per cent account for just 10 per cent of the emissions. Thus, one can say that the per capita consumption of the richest 1 per cent of the world population is 75 times higher than that of the poorest 50 per cent.
The geographical distribution of the rich and poor is substantially skewed. In many sub-Saharan countries, the vast majority of the population belongs to the bottom 50 per cent of global carbon emitters, and in South and
Southeast Asia well above half the population is part of the global bottom 50 per cent. However, in Western countries and former Soviet Republics less than 10 per cent belong to the bottom half of carbon emitters. The majority of the population in these countries are part of the middle 40 per cent. The share of people in the global top 10 per cent is especially high in Western European countries and in the US. In the latter, almost 60 per cent of the national population belong to the global top 10 per cent of carbon emitters. The geographical distribution of the global top 1 per cent of carbon emitters shares many characteristics with that of the global top 10 per cent.
Carbon emissions per dollar of expenditure vary from the lowest- to the highest-income group. In most high- and middle-income countries, this carbon intensity comes down gently from the lowest- to the highest-income groups. In India, it is the opposite. The carbon intensity of expenditure rises with income groups and is twice as high in the top-income group as in the lowest-income group. This must be because high carbon-intensity products like cars and air-conditioners are used almost entirely by the top-income deciles.
What this data shows is that a campaign for lifestyle changes must be directed at the richest 10 per cent of the world population, more than half of whom reside in the developed world. It also shows that in many countries, like India, for instance, there will have to be an asymmetry, with a campaign directed at reducing per capita emissions
of the wealthy and accepting an increase in the per capita emissions of the poor, who need more energy if their living standards are to be raised.
Will the rich nations accept this shift in responsibility? In 1992, responding to activist attacks on consumerism, then US president George Bush (the elder) famously said: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.”
Actually, the American way of life, where “yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities”, is a global problem as it has defined living standard goals and consumer behaviour in most countries. The issue is not just rampant consumerism but also corporations promoting premature obsolescence. The head of the styling section of General Motors once said: “Our big job is to hasten obsolescence.
In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two years. When it is one year we will have a perfect score.”
This dysfunctional consumerism and obsoletism for profit have to change, not just in the rich countries but everywhere. Thirty years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, the UN member states agreed on national-level activities to promote sustainable consumption including minimising the generation of waste, assisting individuals and households to make environmentally sound purchasing decisions, exercising leadership through government purchasing, moving towards environmentally sound
pricing, and reinforcing values that support sustainable consumption. This provides a starting point for pursuing the goal at forthcoming meetings of the UNFCCC.
If India is to pursue this agenda globally, it must show evidence of action at the national level. As a starting point, the government should commission a survey on the carbon and environmental footprint of expenditure categorised by product and income groups. This can provide a basis for designing a strategy to promote sustainable lifestyles.
Influencing commodity prices to tax high-carbon options may not be the best way as that will not maintain the asymmetry we need in the impact on consumption of the rich and the poor. For instance, raising petrol prices to discourage the use of private vehicles may have a minimal impact on the car-using rich, a modest impact on the middle-income two-wheeler users, and an adverse impact on people in the lower-income category, who depend on public transport. The answer may lie more in imposing constraints on the ease of using private cars on public roads.
In India, at the present stage, the pursuit of lifestyles for the environment may have to rely more on specific measures. Some of them are mandatory product standards that reduce the carbon footprint; using government purchase programmes to promote environmentally safer products; labelling to show the
carbon footprint; nudging consumer behaviour through an information outreach; measures to reduce waste generation, for instance, in packaging, which is proliferating because of the rise of organised retail and e- commerce; and mandatorily recycling discarded electronic products and durables by suppliers.
A change in consumption patterns of the rich is as essential for climate mitigation as supply-side innovations and even more crucial for climate justice and India is right to pursue this goal in the UNFCCC.
Climate Change 2022, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Summary for Policy Makers, IPCC, February 2022
Bruckner, B. et al. Impacts of poverty alleviation on national and global carbon emissions. Nature Sustainability (2022).