Household Consumption is the Biggest Drain on the Planet, Study Finds

February 26, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Grocery receipt
Photo credit: stevepb/Pixabay (CC0)

According to a new study, consumers are responsible for 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

China, nicknamed the world’s workshop, generates more carbon emissions than any other country, which is one of the reasons why it is dealing with some serious air quality issues — bad enough that a Canadian company began selling China bottles of clean air.  

Sounds pretty bad, but if you consider that nearly all the products that China produces are exported around the world, it begins to paint a different picture about who actually has the biggest carbon footprint.

“If you look at China’s per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small,” said Diana Ivanova, a PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme in a press release.  “They produce a lot of products but they export them. It’s different if you put the responsibility for those impacts on the consumer, as opposed to the producer.”

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Ivanova and her colleagues decided to look at the environmental impact from a consumer perspective — looking at 43 different countries and 5 rest-of-the-world regions.  What their analysis showed is that consumers are responsible for more than 60 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 percent of the globe’s water use.

“We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses,” Ivanova said.  “But between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well.”

Here’s how the different countries compare when it comes to carbon, land, material and water footprints.
Here’s how the different countries compare when it comes to carbon, land, material and water footprints.

photo credit: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

According to their results, consumers are directly responsible for 20 percent of all carbon emissions, which result from driving cars and heating homes.  However, most of the impacts are not direct but rather secondary impacts — the environmental effects from actually producing the products you buy.

A good example of this, Ivanova said, is water use.  Most people, when they think about reducing their individual water use, consider taking shorter showers or not leaving the water running while brushing their teeth.  While those are great ideas, when the researchers dug a little deeper, they found that most of the water use on the planet is used for producing products for consumers.

For example, beef.  Producing beef requires a lot of water because cows eat grains that need massive amounts of water to grow, but since cows are quite inefficient at converting grains into the meat you eat, it takes around 15,415 litres of water to produce just one kilo of beef.  Dairy products also require similarly large amounts of water to produce.

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Predictably, the richer a country is, the more its residents consume. And the more an individual consumes, the larger that person’s impact is on the planet.

So, who scored the worst?  From their analysis, the US is the worst performer when it comes to per capita greenhouse gas emissions, with a carbon footprint of 18.6 tonnes CO2, followed by Luxembourg with 18.5 tonnes, Australia with 17.7 tonnes, and Canada with 14.6 tonnes.

Contrasted with this, China’s per capita carbon footprint is just 1.8 tonnes CO2, while the global average is 3.4 tonnes.

Since consumers, you and me, are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, there must be things we can do to reduce our impact since we have complete control over how much we consume.

The researchers suggest two easy ways to cut your environmental impact: eat less or no meat, and cut back on your purchases.

Done and done!

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