The Hypocrisy of the Developed World and Sustainability

By Zach Kirkhorn

As I was thinking about what to write for this blog, I got in my car and drove to Whole Foods to grab lunch. While eating my free range chicken, I sat staring at the below billboard. Whole Foods wanted me to understand how it sources fish from sustainable fisheries and contributes to increased use of wind power around the country. I briefly felt good about my contributions to building a sustainable world.

But then was struck by the hypocrisy of it all. I paid far too much of a premium for that simple meal and created too much trash. Rather than walking, I drove. And when I returned home, I realized I left the lights on in my apartment. Jeeze. Do these sustainability efforts really make a difference? Or does it just make citizens of the second most polluting nation in the world feel better about themselves. I turned to the data to get some perspective.

Global CO2 Emissions has increased nearly every year for the last 150 years

We’ve all seen the below chart many times. This is neither surprising nor interesting.

Despite all our talk about climate change, CO2 emission growth is starting to pick up again

The below chart shows the rate of change in global CO2 emissions over the last 100 years. Although the rate of CO2 growth declined between the late 1950’s and 2000, it’s been increasing over the last 10 years.

To slow CO2 growth (or even decrease it), we’ll need to decrease CO2 per capita.

Total CO2 = ( # of people ) * (CO2 per person)

As we can’t really regulate the growth in population, our only hope in controlling total CO2 levels is to decrease CO2 per person. It’s scary that CO2 emissions per capita in China and India is increasing rapidly. We see pictures of Beijing covered in smog and tell ourselves “shame on them.”

But the real “inconvenient truth” here is that despite all the lip service the developed world gives to “sustainability” and “green technologies”, countries like the US, Japan, and Germany have only stabilized their per capita CO2 emission levels in the last decade. While that’s definitely progress, the US still pollutes four times more per capita than in China.

We need to stop pretending that we’re trying to save the world.

Posters at Whole Foods trick us into believing we’re doing the right thing for the planet. Unfortunately, consumption is polluting and the developed world loves to consume. The developing world is quickly catching up. With the strong economic interests for a developing country to increase consumption and production, it’s nearly impossible for pollution abatement efforts to take effect.

Until we feel the pain of the damage we’re doing to the planet, we’re going to continue to live in this “climate change abatement is possible” bubble. We’ll talk about improved insulation, solar water heaters and organic salmon farms, thinking this actually makes a difference. And we’ll continue to blame countries like China and India, when we really should spend time blaming ourselves. The brutal truth is that this game of capitalism provides strong economic incentives to pollute. We need to start preparing ourselves for a world that’s multiple times more polluted than the world we have today.

Data sources:

CO2 Emissions Raw Data: World Resources Institute,

Population Statistics: Wikipedia pages for China, India, United States, Germany, Russia, Japan


7 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy of the Developed World and Sustainability

  1. Pingback: Most Commented through Friday, March 8th | Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance

  2. I hear your point, and it’s a fair one. However, we’ve talked at length about the difficulties in retrofitting development: the political implications, the entrenched interests. We’ve also talked about things that are foundational- like the orientation of the buildings, how close they are together, where neighborhoods are located- make a huge difference.

    In emerging markets, which grow far more rapidly than places in the US, there’s a chance to influence the direction of growth- to influence which land becomes the city center, to influence the building codes. To me, this is why it’s important to talk about emerging markets- so we can prevent other cities from polluting as much as we do.

  3. Great post, Zach and I totally agree the one main driver of our (= the developed world’s) CO2 emission is our ever-increasing need for consumption. However, I feel that even without reducing our quality of living (which most people will certainly connect to a reduced consumption), there are ways to foster the reduction:

    As you have mentioned, Germany has a lower CO2-emission/capita than the US. In fact, this is not only true for Germany, but for all European countries. France and Denmark for example have only 1/3 of the US CO2-emission/capita, Italy and Spain have less of the US emission.

    While there are some factors that are just given and can’t be changed (such as the bigger land size of the US and thus maybe the increased need for travel), I feel that governments and the private sector can influence CO2-emission in a positive way without forcing us to adapt our consumption-patterns.

    First, government and the private sector can make it easier to ‘live green’. One example is the infrastructure in Europe, which is certainly more developed than the US infrastructure. I found this little story by an US journalist which illustrates this fact nicely [1]:

    It was late and raining this summer when I approached the information desk at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport to inquire about how best to get into the city center. “The fastest is the train, but there are also busses,” the guide said.

    “Are there taxis?” I inquired, trying hard to forget the reminders on the Arlanda website that trains are “the most environmentally friendly” form of transport, referring to taxis as “alternative transportation” for those “unable to take public transport.”

    “Yes, I guess you could take one,” he said, dripping with disdain as he peered over the edge of the counter at my single piece of luggage.

    I slunk into the cab, paid about $60 and spent the 45-minute ride feeling as guilty as if I’d built a coal-fired plant in my back yard. (Note: The cabs at Arlanda are hybrids.) Two days later, although my flight left at 7 a.m., I took the Arlanda Express. It cost half as much and took 15 minutes to the terminal.

    If there was an Express Train from Logan to Harvard Square (or even Downtown), I’d be the first to use it. But there isn’t. While it would require significant investment, upgrading public transportation would make travelling more convenient while at the same time reducing CO2-emission.

    Second, government can subsidize ‘clean’ products or energies. The subsidization of renewables in Germany which you have mentioned is certainly one example. Another example is the subsidization of energy efficient houses. Another German example: citizens receive a loan of 50.000 € at 1.4% p.a. interest only if they build an energy-efficient house. Again, citizens don’t forego anything; instead they are just guided to the more efficient choice.

    Third, government can use market mechanisms to incentivize an energy efficient behavior. One example is the European Union Emissions Trading System, which covers more than 11,000 factories in all member states. A cap is set on the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by all participating installations. Allowances for emissions are then auctioned off or allocated for free, and can subsequently be traded. Thus, the private sector has a real incentive to reduce its CO2-emission. Again, while the costs of a more efficient production might be passed on to end consumers, this practice doesn’t directly affect my way of living.

    Finally, governments can just force a reduction in CO2-emission. One example is certainly mandatory emission reduction targets for new cars, introduced in the European Union in 2009.

    But even with stuck governments, markets might regulate themselves over the medium-term. With increasing oil and gas prices, companies will be more and more incentivized to develop energy-efficient products and processes and thus hopefully support a reduction of CO2-emission without the developing world needing to change its behavior (which I fear will take many more decades to do).


    • Thanks, Valerie. I agree that each of your recommendations will have a significant impact on our CO2 per capita. They need to be done. And they need to be done yesterday. You have my vote!

      Our thesis in class has been that governments are stuck (true!), so the private sector needs to come to the rescue. Yet in each of your recommendations, the government is an essential (the most essential?) player in reducing CO2 per capita. The main driver for the more the energy efficient European countries is the government. European countries have high gas taxes and better public transportation infrastructure. This pushes people to live in smaller homes/apartments and in more dense cities as they simply can’t afford the inefficiencies we’re so used to in the US. The belief that markets might regulate themselves is an ideal. I share your fear that it will likely take decades to see any impact.

      If all the examples of developed countries that fare better than the US in CO2 per capita have achieved those improvements with the benefit of extensive government intervention, what does that say about what should be done in the US? Are we ready to trade in our cars and take the train to work? I took the train everyday when I lived in San Francisco, one of the most environment friendly cities in the US. But that came at a personal sacrifice and it was just as expensive as driving. A 30 minute one-way drive turned into 1 hr and 20 minutes with public transportation. And I lived next to the train station!

      Are we naive to think that a private solution is really going to move the needle on CO2 per capita if governments continue to be stuck? Or should our efforts move to getting the government unstuck and providing our nation’s leaders with a solution they can implement? I’d argue that in the absence of government intervention, regulation, and investment, we should stop fooling ourselves into thinking a material CO2 reduction solution is possible in the private market alone. Sigh.

      • By John Macomber

        I personally concur that private sector businesses are not going to do much about CO2 if CO2 is portrayed as the issue. However I also believe that there are business models which make money from resource efficiency or helping others to be more efficient users of resources. Only the fuel providers benefit from more usage; everyone else does pretty much fine if they can get the same functionality out of less water, electricity, or transit time. As you have heard me claim over and over, in the built environment the efficiency of use of water and electricity and transit depends much more on size and proximity of structures than on all the gizmos in the structures. So those two angles (businesses who make a buck on resource efficiency, and developer or local government incentives around compactness and density), are where I hang my hat … I guess as the Pollyanna Financier?

        Arguably the European compactness is a result of assertive land planning and building restriction as much as fuel prices. They probably go hand in hand with each other and with an evidently more collective orientation

        The USA of course is different than the emerging economies in all my frameworks. “Slow growth, already built, individualistic and rich” looks a lot different than “fast growth, not yet built, collectivist, and poor-becoming-a-little-richer” in terms of what interventions have the most benefit.

    • I definitely have thoughts on what to do, just wasn’t able to discuss them with our word limit 🙂

      I think the reality here is that to make a meaningful difference in CO2 emissions, we need governments to rejigger the incentive structures for private companies and citizens such that greenhouse gas emissions are a consideration. Then the capitalist model can be free to operate with these new rules.

      Take Germany for example, which based on my math has decreases CO2 emissions by 25% since the mid 80’s. While I’m no expert on Germany’s energy policy, this article gives credit for this change to government regulation. (

      China has arguably the most aggressive electric vehicles push in the world. And that’s driven by the State. (

      So if government intervention is necessary, what do we do about it? We need to vote for politicians who care about climate change. And then we need to lobby them to create regulation that forces the private market to respond. Then we’ll see all sorts of private market solutions that are geared towards sustainability.

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