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Big Emitters: How Growth in Consumption Drives Climate Change


It seems obvious that the more people there are on the planet, the more the pressure on planetary resources and the larger the emissions of greenhouse gases. So it also seems obvious that population growth must be a major driver of global warming. But it is just as obvious that very poor households contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions. So if most of the world’s population
growth is among very poor households, population growth is not the culprit. The greatest human driver of global warming is the number of consumers on the planet and their consumption level. Individuals and households contribute to global warming by consuming goods and services that cause greenhouse gas emissions – for instance, by owning a refrigerator or a car. Through this they are responsible for all the fossil fuels that go into making, distributing, advertising, selling, using and disposing of it.

The lowest-income groups and global warming

A significant proportion of the world’s urban and rural populations – perhaps as many as one in five people– produce very low levels of greenhouse gas emissions because their incomes, and thus their consumption levels, are so low. There are no precise figures for their numbers. But studies of resource use and consumption among low-income households show that most do not use fossil fuels (they rely on fuelwood, charcoal or agricultural wastes) and most do not have electricity (and so they have no household appliances that use electricity) (see ‘Low income, low consumption, low carbon’).

If they do use electricity and fossil fuels (for instance, kerosene for cooking and lighting), their consumption levels are very low. Their diets are dominated by food with low carbon footprints (unlike high-income households whose diets are very land, energy and carbon intensive). If households are so constrainedin their income that family members are severely undernourished and often have to resort to only one meal a day, it is hardly likely that their consumption patterns are generating much greenhouse gas emissions. It seems obvious that the more people there are on the planet, the more the pressure on planetary resources and the larger the emissions of greenhouse gases. So it also seems obvious that population growth must be a major driver of global warming. But it is just as obvious that very poor households contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions. So if most of the world’s population growth is among very poor households, population growth is not the culprit. The greatest human driver of global warming is the number of consumers on the planet and their consumption level. Individuals and households contribute to global warming by consuming goods and services that cause greenhouse gas emissions – for instance, by owning a refrigerator or a car. Through this they are responsible for all the fossil fuels that go into making, distributing, advertising, selling, using and disposing of it.

So it is not the growth in the world’s population that contributes to climate change, but the growth in consumption. This is growth not just in the number of consumers but also in consumption levels. Stable or shrinking populations may still be rapidly increasing their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, London today has fewer people than it had 70 years ago, but the consumption levels of its population (and thus their contribution to globalwarming) have grown dramatically.

The contribution to global warming of a person born today depends on the circumstances into which they are born and their life possibilities and choices. To take an extreme example, an infant born into a very low-income household in Africa or Asia that dies before the age of one contributes almost nothing to global warming. Such infant deaths are not unusual; it is common for one in 10 children in these regions to die before their first birthday.

Even if a person born today avoids premature death, they may still contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions – for instance, living a full life as a farmer with a small plot of land, or as an agricultural laborer, or as an individual living and working in a ‘slum’...


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 http://www.iied.org/pubs/pdfs/17077IIED.pdf

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