Rising Wealth Spells Disaster for the Planet, Study Finds

Circuit Boards – Chris Jordan “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption http://www.chrisjordan.com

By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jun 3, 2010 (IPS)

Rising global wealth spells disaster for the planet, with environmental impacts growing roughly 80 percent with a doubling of income, reports the first comprehensive study of consumption.

It adds to the mountain of evidence that the gospel of economic growth must be urgently transformed into the new gospel of resource-efficient green economies, a U.N. expert panel concluded Wednesday.

What are the biggest planetary criminals?

Fossil fuel use and agriculture, the study found. Ironically, these are also the two most heavily subsidised sectors, noted Ernst von Weizsaecker of Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

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“In the case of CO2, a doubling of wealth typically increases environmental pressure 60 to 80 percent, sometimes more in emerging economies,” von Weizsaecker said in an interview.

Rising affluence has also triggered a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products so that livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and indirectly consumes 70 percent of the fresh water and produce much of the fertiliser pollution, von Weizsaecker said from Brussels.

The report “Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials“, was released Wednesday at the European Commission in Brussels.

“It is clear that a meat-based diet uses more land and fertiliser and emits far more CO2 than a vegetarian diet,” said von Weizsaecker.

The study also found that rich countries like Japan, the United States and many in the European Union are now “exporting” a large part or most of their true environmental impacts to developed countries by importing goods and food from those countries.

In a spiral of destructive co-dependency, China’s rising CO2 emissions and deforestation in Malaysia are in part a direct result of North American and European consumption of the goods made there.

“International trade clearly shows rich countries are outsourcing their impacts,” von Weizsaecker said.

“Given this fact, perhaps the current way of structuring agreements on emission reduction targets is becoming obsolete,” said Ashok Khosla, co-chair of the panel and president of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

At the household level, it is the goods and services consumed, not the fossil fuel used for cars or homes, that accounts for most of the environmental impacts. This is despite energy and material efficiency gains over the past two decades. Efficiency has improved on a per dollar expenditure basis but people are consuming more, which drowns out any efficiency gains, said panel expert Sangwon Suh of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Policy makers cannot just look at direct emissions, they need to look at a full life cycle of their consumption and incorporate those impacts into their decision making,” Suh told IPS.

Representing the world’s foremost experts, the panel synthesised a comprehensive library of the most authoritative global studies to provide science-based assessments of products, materials and economic and lifestyle activities, producing the greatest harm to the planet.

It is the first global assessment of what kind of consumption activities have the biggest impacts,” Suh said.

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Fossil fuel use and agriculture topped the list in the149-page report, followed by the heavily subsidised industrial fishing industry and the production and consumption of materials like metals and plastics. While the latter do cause severe damage locally all over the world, shockingly these are not that significant compared to global impacts of fossil fuel and agriculture, the report noted.

The purpose of this U.N. Environment Programme-sponsored study was to identify the “hot spots” in terms of environmental impacts so that policy makers can use this information to reform policies, said Suh.

“Setting priorities would seem prudent and sensible in order to fast track a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, which hosted the panel.

“Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the number one challenge facing governments,” Steiner said in a statement.

However, this decoupling is not happening, the report shows. And it will not happen in the future without strong policy interventions, said von Weizsaecker.

Policy makers and economists will need to abandon their obsession with economic growth as the solution to all problems, writes Clive Hamilton in a new book “Requiem for a Species”. Growth has become a powerful symbol of success and modernity even though in reality it is neither, says Hamilton, a writer and academic at the Australian National University.

If someone is murdered, it adds about one million dollars to the GDP of rich countries when costs of police, courts, and prisons are factored in, according to his research.

“Murder is good for the economy. So is environmental destruction,” he writes.

It will take extraordinary leadership to reverse the consumption-driven society where children are bombarded with advertising – 17 billion dollars annually in the U.S. alone, Hamilton notes.

The same over-consumption brainwashing is well underway in the developing world. Shopping has become a form of recreation amongst China’s growing middle class and wealthy elite, who bought more than 12 percent of the world’s luxury goods in 2005, second only to the U.S., he says.

“Faced with the scale of the challenge, far more transformational measures need to be taken. Currently, we are fiddling – or fiddling around the edges – while Rome burns,” said Khosla.

First published as Money Begets Environmental Evils, Study Finds

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