Only Less Consumption Can Stop the Crash
Tim Jackson | New Scientist | November 2008
The disastrous effects of unfettered consumption have been known and understood for 40 years already. Back then, American environmental researchers Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren created the "Ehrlich equation," a tool that can also be applied to current greenhouse gas emissions. After application of the equation only one radical conclusion remains: unlimited growth and sustainable development are not compatible.
The "Ehrlich equation" (I=PAT) tells us simply that the environmental impact (I) of human activities is a product of the size of the population (P), the level of affluence (A) of the population measured as income per person, and a technology factor (T) that measures the environmental effects of each spent US dollar. So if we apply the equation on the example of climate change, this is what we get: close to seven billion people, with an average income per person of 8,000 US dollar, along with a technology factor of five hundred kg CO2 emitted for each thousand dollars spent on production of goods and services, give us a sum of yearly emissions of 28 billion tons of greenhouse gases.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), CO2 emissions must be reduced to under five billion tons by the year 2050, in order to stabilize an acceptable level of greenhouse gases. With an expected population of 9 billion people half way through the century, the technology factor would then have to be lowered to a level of 100 kg of emissions for each 1000 dollars spent. This would mean a reduction through technological means to a level of one fifth the current output, something that may well be achievable through a combination of strong political will and expected technological advances.
In the meantime, however, if developing countries are expected to keep their economic growth at a rate between two and three percent, with China and India catching up with the developed world and Africa hopelessly lagging behind, then the technology factor would need to go down to 30 kg of emissions for each thousand, compared with the current five hundred. With a continuous global economic growth of 2.5 percent throughout the century, the total economy will triple in comparison to that of 2050, demanding a practically non-emissive economy in order to keep climate change in check.
The potential for technological development, renewable energies, or a hydrogen-based economy are not exhausted. However, the key to a sustainable development in the long run can only be less consumption. In order to defend ourselves, we should get rid of the idea that technology can protect us from the threatening environmental collapse.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Frank-Walter Steinmeier & David Miliband: Addressing the Emerging Challenges of Climate Change
- Dale Medearis: Local Authorities are Key to Transatlantic Climate and Energy Cooperation