Climate Justice in Consumption Production Systems

Imaduddin Ahmed, PhD – Academic Board, The Paddy Ashdown Forum

Chapter 5 – Promoting Climate Justice in Consumption Production Systems – European Liberal Forum

Regardless of how much we may want to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of world leaders for failing to coordinate on commitments and make good on previous promises, consumption and production are the drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. Decoupling between emissions and consumption and with production has not yet happened at scale.[1] If democratically elected leaders are failing to sufficiently regulate wasteful consumption and needlessly emissions intensive production, it is because wasteful consumers and inefficient corporations have supported their journey to office. It is because we are not yet ready to give up our red meat-heavy diets or reduce our food waste; because we buy more clothes than we can wear in three weeks of three seasons; because we still use single-use plastics and don’t recycle assiduously; because we turn up the heat before we put on jumpers. We value opulence, and yet hardly recognise how decadent and destructive our lifestyles are for others. Our leaders are only reflections of us. If we want to see bolder climate commitments, change begins with the way in which we live.

The day of reckoning is upon us. Do we want more at the expense of others? Or, as consumers, are we prepared to sacrifice what we don’t need? As producers, are we prepared to re-evaluate our priorities? Are we prepared to recognise that aspirations to become rich or to value perpetual economic growth for their own sakes are meaningless pursuits? Or to admit that, in the words of the former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, ‘shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world’? That what we need is to invest more deeply in one-on-one relationships and fostering community, to mitigate suffering, to engage with and nurture nature?

The fate of generations to come, let alone those living in more climate vulnerable parts of the planet, is in our consumption and production patterns. Our consumption and production has already caused much irreversible damage to biodiversity, and little time remains before we arrive at a tipping point of no return with regards to cascading worsening effects. These effects include the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic releasing methane; weakening of the land and sea to act as carbon sinks and instead acting in the opposite way with increased forest fires and increasing bacteria in the ocean producing more CO2 (Berners-Lee, 2019, p. 272; Liberal International, 2021). What this means for Europeans is increased frequency of droughts, floods, increased food insecurity, increased diseases and bacteria, greater risks of injuries and deaths owing to more intense heatwaves and fires, and greater migration to Europe as the poor become poorer in low income countries or altogether lose their nation states under water (Biermann and Boas, 2017; IPCC, 2018, pp. 234, 238, 240–241, 244; Liberal International, 2021). These are the costs to people as individuals. The costs to people as shareholders, the costs to finance institutions and multinational corporations are the costs of damaged assets and assets that become stranded as a result of new climate legislation or reduced consumer demand for carbon-intensive products. Enlightened European banks have already started estimating their and their clients’ value at risk under various temperature rise scenarios, and large companies and financial institutions in the UK will be required to disclose their value at risk by 2025. (It is hoped that other G20 countries will follow suit. Once the financial value at risk to OECD large corporations is known, governments that make efforts to preserve their carbon sinks such as wetlands, mangroves and forests can demand to be compensated for the full value of their services under a structured international framework.)

Many put faith in climate-facing innovation’s ability to keep rises in global temperatures within the levels required to prevent tipping points, as well as to make communities more climate resilient. Indeed, myriad EU institutions have been set-up to this end. Horizon Europe, the Innovation Fund and InvestEU aim to foster technology that reduces emissions through the product development lifecycle – from proof of concept, to pilot, to demonstration and scale-up, helping technologies traverse the “valley of death”, to commercial roll-out. Government procurement and publicly financed projects that deploy emissions efficient technology further enhance the commerciality of decarbonising technologies.

Mission-oriented innovation must be a part of the solution. It has shown us multiple pathways to cheap and zero-emission power generation, has shown great potential for a sharing economy for transport beyond that which is publicly provided, and started to demonstrate substitutes for emissions-intensive construction material. Moreover, we need it if we are not to use whatever remaining carbon budget we have on elevating the material living standards of those who do not yet enjoy half the quality of life that we do, materially. Two-thirds of Africans rely on subsistence farming and 600 million people still do not have access to electricity. With an average GDP per capita of $2,000 (compared to the global average of $10,500), and a population on course to rise from 1.3 billion to 4 billion in just 80 years, Africa’s economy needs to be 16 times higher than it is to bring the average African citizen’s quality of life to match the global average (Walsh et al., 2021). If rhetoric about low-income countries “leapfrogging” the fossil fuel era is not to be empty, it is incumbent on OECD societies endowed with the know-how, resources and institutions to lead in the development of low-emission and sequestering technology.

But we cannot afford to put all of our stock in that which requires faith. For those of us in OECD societies to continue consuming and producing at our current or increasing rates in the expectation that some technologies will somehow solve our problems at some undefined time in the future is a recipe for disaster. Until we have a technology that removes the current stock of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – and so far our best proven technologies are nature based solutions – we have little choice but to decrease our consumption and production, particularly when we think with a more global mind-set. If we have limited income consumption and production aspirations for those with currently lower than average incomes to the global average (rather than the average of OECD societies), we must similarly converge downwards in our consumption and production. This should be possible across sectors of the economy.

Food: Forty-four grams (44g) of protein is required per person per day for healthy living (Berners-Lee et al., 2018). Yet due to wastage in the supply chain as well as in household waste, we produce 235g of protein per person per day (Berners-Lee et al., 2018), 154g of which is lost, and 36g of which is gluttony. First, this implies excess consumption of 84%. Second, this implies that 81% of protein is wasted along the supply chain – this represents a massive opportunity for efficiency gains. The greatest gains to be had are in reducing meat intake and the inefficient conversion of crops to protein. Reductions in production of meat will only follow reductions in demand for meat, short of having government regulate meat production. 

Figure 1 Global food protein flow

Source: Berners-Lee et al., 2018 (IDH, 2020)

Additionally, we need to be mindful as consumers that just as we kicked our addiction to hardwood for furniture, so too do we need to reduce our intake of beef, cocoa, coffee, palm oil and soy if we are committed to stopping deforestation and regulating climate change.

Figure 2 Consumer countries drive deforestation

Source: IDH, 2020

Energy: The easiest win in reducing use of fossil fuels and reducing embedded carbon in whatever form of power generation we end up using is to use less energy. Don’t use energy when we don’t need it, grid operators to reduce transmission losses, and consumers to use more efficient appliances and processes. 

In terms of low-emission power generation, sans advances in technology that don’t yet exist, the way forward must be to ramp-up nuclear power in administrative areas with strong political governance (to prevent bureaucratic incompetence from enabling incidents such as Chernobyl) and which are not prone to natural disasters (such as tsunamis as at Fukushima). The German consumer and electorate’s ideological nuclear aversion is not constructive: it increases Germany’s already disproportionate contribution to the stock of greenhouse gases through increased dependence on coal in order to assuage anxieties over nuclear meltdowns, which have never had their provenance from within the EU.

Solar and wind can only help to a degree as technology stands, but are far from a panacea. Because they are intermittent sources of power, they cannot be dispatched when energy is most demanded, such as evening time (although working from home flattens energy demand in the evening by allowing people to, for example, wash their clothes during the day.)

  • Power storage using batteries using current technology contains a lot of embedded carbon (as do solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines which have relatively short lifespans), and there are physically not enough minerals on earth to supply the volume of batteries required to fulfil current energy needs with just solar and wind.
  • Solar and wind could be used in combination with hydropower dams to store excess solar and wind energy, but again low-emission, climate-resilient hydropower is in limited supply. Depending on the conditions around a reservoir (fluctuations in depth, surface area, soil, underlying vegetation, temperature), hydropower can be multiple times worse in terms of global warming potential through methane emissions from decomposing vegetation than coal (Ocko and Hamburg, 2019; Ahmed, 2021b). Hydropower reservoir capacities worldwide are also becoming decreasingly dependable due to increasing incidents and intensities of drought due to climate change (Ahmed, 2021a).
  • A third solution for making use of solar throughout the day is Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s vision of “One world, one sun, one grid”. It is yet to be demonstrated that the embedded carbon and lifespan of transmission infrastructure required to connect countries spanning the world would reduce the carbon emitted from alternative models of power generation on a lifecycle assessment basis.

Materials: Steel, aluminium, cement, plastics, ethyl and ammonia production are emissions-intensive materials that provide construction materials, packaging and food security. The way forward with reducing emissions from these from a European perspective is not to simply outsource their production to China, where there is no way to oversee whether these materials are produced as carbon efficiently as possible. With a nod to Wood Plc’s SCORE (Substitute, Capture, Off-set, Reduce and Evaluate) decarbonisation framework,[2] the way forward is to

  • Reduce consumption wherever possible. This includes housing procurement authorities, developers and lenders NOT automatically replacing energy inefficient buildings with new ones or building new cycle lanes and wider footpaths (unless these are built using natural materials) in place of roads. Lifecycle assessments MUST be carried out so that they take into account the upstream emissions of manufacturing, transporting and installing construction materials, and compare the lifecycle emissions with simply retrofitting or repurposing what is already in place, whose embedded carbon is a sunk cost. At the consumer level, reduction in consumption includes shifting from a culture of giving material gifts to a culture of giving low-emission experiences, as well as welcoming a culture of giving second-hand gifts, such as clean and functional baby toys. Similarly, we should welcome the sight of mended socks when friends visit, rather than seeking to replace every holey pair. The aim should be to prolong the useful lives of goods we tend to discard for as long as possible before repurposing or recycling component parts into a more circular economy; there  is no reason why this shouldn’t open up a new industry and create new jobs in mending, repurposing and finally recycling.
  • Substitute energy-intensive materials where the less-intensive alternatives can serve the same purpose. EarthEnable[3] in Rwanda has effectively replaced cement floors for its customers with floors made by compressing different layers of natural materials, and sealing them with a new and cheap waterproof oil developed by a California-based biochemist at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, where manufactured fertilisers and pesticides can be replaced through job-creating and organic practices that can deliver food security, they should be. Organic practices can include the use of denser hedgerows and woodlands nurture biodiverse wildlife that prey on pests; the use of poly-cropping to introduce greater climate resilience between complementary crops; and to also allow nitrogen-fixing legumes to grow alongside cereals; the use of natural compost. 
  • Capture emissions where the manufacturing of emissions-intensive materials is unavoidable. This means deploying expensive carbon capture, use and storage technology, and being prepared to pay the premium for it.
  • Off-set the remaining fugitive emissions from the manufacture of the emissions-intensive materials. This can be done by supporting wildlife such as whales and elephants that sequester carbon, supporting the proliferation of mangroves, paying the government of net-negative Gabon for preserving its rainforests, or supporting poor cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire, beef-farmers in Brazil or palm-oil farmers with more sustainable livelihoods that do not involve deforestation. 

Transport: Systems-thinking in the construction of rail between hubs and between underserved areas will enable greater mobility and substitution away from fossil-fuel driven road and short-haul air transport. An increased proliferation of vehicles using the sharing economy business model of Zipcar where cars are available at multiple locations will reduce the stock of infrequently used vehicles on the road, and hence the embedded carbon – electric vehicles on their own are not a panacea for decarbonisation given the high associated carbon costs of manufacturing them. Ring-fencing finance for electric vehicle batteries, accompanying electric vehicle sales, so that they are payable on a pay-as-you-go-basis as petrol would be, together with a proliferation of charging stations particularly in rural areas, will enable the uptake of electric vehicles. A lot of transport planning falls within the purview of competent local authorities as well as ministries, rather than world leaders; others fall within the purview of entrepreneurs.

We cannot bank on technologies that do not exist. We must start coming to terms with the fact that in to live more sustainable lifestyles, we will need to live frugally. At the same time, new generations of graduates must also think about how they can change the paradigms of the marketplace to deliver low-carbon goods and services as they think about how to make their living.

And here I leave them with a meditation delivered as a graduation speech a generation ago by author Maxine Hong Kingston at UC Berkeley.

“Making a living”. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase? A gerund, a verb form, an idiom made of two verb forms. Not a definitive once-and-for-all dead-end noun like “money” or “job” […] You create and make up new jobs that are good for a human being. You alter a cramping job so that it supports your humanity and spirit and changes the marketplace [… Your] graduation is not the beginning or the end. In Native American cultures, the questing hero or heroine sees a vision, then brings it back as a story, a song, a dance, a weaving pattern, a painting, or a map to give to his tribe. [G]raduation is the middle of the quest. Now you take the knowledge and make sense of it, create its practical applications, invent human uses for abstractions, and bring gifts home to us, your community.    

References

Ahmed, I. (2021a) The Political Economy of Hydropower Dependant Nations – A Case Study of Zambia. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-71266-2.

Ahmed, I. (2021b) ‘Why Zambia’s System of Energy Provision Did Not Prevent the Power Outages of 2015 and 2016’, in The Political Economy of Hydropower Dependant Nations. 1st edn. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 145–206. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-71266-2_5.

Berners-Lee, M. et al. (2018) ‘Current global food production is sufficient to meet human nutritional needs in 2050 provided there is radical societal adaptation’, Elementa, 6. doi: 10.1525/elementa.310.

Berners-Lee, M. (2019) There is no Planet B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biermann, F. and Boas, I. (2017) ‘Towards a global governance system to protect climate migrants: taking stock’, in Mayer, B. and Crepeau, F. (eds) Research Handbook on Climate Change, Migration and the Law. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, pp. 405–419. doi: 10.4337/9781785366598.00026.

IDH (2020) The urgency of action to tackle tropical deforestation. Utrecht. Available at: https://www.idhsustainabletrade.com/uploaded/2020/02/IDH_The-UoA-to-Tackle-Tropical-Deforestation_2020-web.pdf.

IPCC (2018) Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, Special Report. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Full_Report_Low_Res.pdf.

Liberal International (2021) Policy paper on climate displacement. Available at: https://liberal-international.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Climate-Induced_Final.pdf.

Ocko, I. B. and Hamburg, S. P. (2019) ‘Climate Impacts of Hydropower: Enormous Differences among Facilities and over Time’, Environmental Science and Technology, 53(23), pp. 14070–14082. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b05083.

Walsh, G. et al. (2021) A Just Transition for Africa: Championing a Fair and Prosperous Pathway to Net Zero. London. Available at: https://institute.global/advisory/just-transition-africa-.


[1] It has happened in a handful of tax-havens that pass as nation states, and in post-industrial nations that have experienced the productivity gains of a carbon-intensive industrialisation and have now outsourced their manufacturing and territorial emissions (but not consumption emissions) to China and other industrialising countries.

[2] https://www.woodplc.com/solutions/expertise/a-z-list-of-our-expertise/decarbonisation-score#:~:text=What%20is%20your%20decarbonisation%20SCORE,lead%20to%20a%20successful%20outcome.

[3] https://www.earthenable.org/our-floors/

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