photo: Peter Megyeri via flickr
In case you've been wondering lately if this whole tree-hugging nonsense has its priorities straight, wondering if those of us in the environmental movement are focusing on the right areas of greatest ecological impact, the UNEP has just released a new report detailing which human activities are causing the greatest harm. Many of these reports are jargon-filled and sometimes intimidating if you're not used to reading them and this one is no different; read the full report if you like, or the summary, but here's the take-away of the report and what you can do to put some of it into action:In terms of top three broad areas of impact, the report tells us largely what we've known: Fossil fuel use is a big culprit, with energy supply amounting to 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Mining and/or production of iron, steel and aluminum, as well as plastics are also right at the top of the list.
Over half of global crop production goes to feeding livestock--that's about 19% of total land area on the planet. Photo: Ricky via flickr.
Go Veg to Feed 9 Billion People
Echoing what previous UN reports, a growing number of NGO reports, and an increasing number of people in the environmental movement are saying, this new survey lists agriculture right at the top of the list as well.
Agriculture, the study says, is responsible for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 60% of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, 38% of total land use, and 19% of total greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe, 30% of toxic pollution comes from the agricultural sector. All of this is set to increase as human population grows.
The report also notes that meat and dairy products are agriculture's "most environmentally-intensive category," with animals being fed more than half of the world's crops. It also makes the connection that with a projected 50% growth in population by 2050 an obvious way to ease the environmental impact of feeding all those people is for more people to adopt a vegetarian diet, directly feeding people with crops grown on land now used for animal feed production.
photo: Mikester 007 via flickr
Doubling Income Nearly Doubles Environmental Impact
All of that should be familiar ground for regular TreeHugger readers. But this finding, at least in its specificity, may not be: Looking at environmental impact and income levels, the UNEP found that environmental impacts increase by roughly 80% with a doubling of income.
It's pretty obvious that more income in a consumerist society leads to more stuff and more stuff means a greater environmental impact (even if you're choosing the most eco-friendly materials and production methods this holds true), but what the report notes is that contrary to popular assertions that higher income levels allows a country the money to combat pollution and to increase efficiency, it's just not as simple as that.
All of which brings to mind two other fairly recent reports related to this:
9 Billion People Means Way Lower Per Capita Sustainable Resource Consumption
The first is by Worldwatch which shows that when it comes to ecological sustainable resource consumption--remember that globally we're consuming resources equal to about 1.3 planets--the planet can support only 1.4 billion people at US levels. Equitably distribute resource consumption to 6 billion-plus people today and a per capita income of about $5,100 is ecologically sustainable, that's about the resource consumption of the average Thai or Jordanian person. At projected population levels of 2050, that drops to below $2,000 per year.
Do Less to Go Green
The second is by the New Economics Foundation and suggests that consuming less and doing less is, contrary to the dominant economic growth as panacea thought, the way to both reduce ecological impact and rebuild our communities in the developed world. NEF proposes a societal shift towards 21 hours a week of paid work being the norm, with corresponding drops in income, and increased civic engagement as being essential in this less is more shift.
Coming To Terms With Sustainable Resource Consumption
Taken together, these reports really solidify something that I've long thought and without a doubt will require some collective soul searching. It requires a reassessment of the language we use in the environmental community when we try to convince people that living with lower impact is a necessity. Continuing to say that we can preserve our environment with just shifting the goods we consume is dumbing down the issue to the point of it being an outright lie.
All the talk about being able to maintain the same material standard of living (not quality of life) that we take for granted in the United States, Europe, Japan, and other developed nations while at the same not unsustainably consuming natural resources just isn't possible. At the same time, the hopes of many developing countries to raise their standard of living to that of developed nations is equally not ecologically possible--even if in many genuine increases are very much possible.
When it comes down to it, if we humans want to live together on this planet in standards of harmony that we have today--admitting that's pretty inharmonious, often--then we need to come to terms with our norms of resource consumption.
UNEP Report is Good Personal Starting Point
Linking this back to the UNEP report, and to try to make those last few paragraphs less intimidating (it is, thinking this broadly), if want to limit your personal impact then focus on your energy usage (green power? walk or bike more and drive and fly less), your diet (vegan, vegetarian or weekday vegetarian?), and your consumption of plastics and metals in consumer goods (heirloom consumer goods?). Lead by example.
More on Resource Consumption:
Is It Time to Transition to 21-Hour Work Weeks?
Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Degradation & Destruction
One More Step to Ecological Insolvency: September 23rd is Earth Overshoot Day