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.
CO2 Emissions Raw Data: World Resources Institute, http://www.wri.org/tools/cait/?guest=1
Population Statistics: Wikipedia pages for China, India, United States, Germany, Russia, Japan