Developing Sustainable Lifestyles

It can be hard not to abandon hope for a sustainable future when you read about our rapidly growing global population and the hopes of those in the developing world (growing the fastest) to lead more ‘western’ lifestyles. For ‘western’, read ‘consumptive’. Last year Jared Diamond came up with new numbers to make us feel even more hopeless; economically more developed countries are consuming resources and producing waste 32 times faster than less developed countries. That means, Diamond estimates, if everyone on earth were to eat as much meat, drive their cars as far and use electricity as prodigiously as Europeans, Americans and Japanese currently do it would be as if the human population had suddenly ballooned to 72 billion.

In an editorial in the latest issue of Conservation Biology, R. Edward Grumbine and Jianchu Xu use Diamond’s example when discussing the rise of China as a global economic power and consumer and the potential implications for conservation, the environment and the climate debate:

“China’s rapid economic rise has not helped conservation much. The country faces severe environmental challenges as the largest human population in history builds highways, factories, and housing to fully join the modern industrial world. The PRC [People’s Republic of China], however, remains relatively poor. Per capita income in 2007 was a mere one-fifth of the U.S. average; a typical American teenager has more discretionary income than the total annual salary of the average Chinese citizen.

Despite the importance of biodiversity issues, we want to draw attention to less-discussed environmental concerns that involve China at regional and global scales and which will likely transform life for all of us over the rest of the 21st century.”

Focusing on their discussion about issues related to climate change, Grumbine and Xu point out;

“Even if the European Union and the United States magically reduced their greenhouse gas emissions to zero while you are reading this sentence, China’s current pace by itself may keep global emissions rising through 2020.

China should not be blamed for the world’s runaway greenhouse gas emissions; the United States never even ratified the Kyoto Protocol. And we emphasize that China’s development dream is not a vision exclusive to the PRC. Beyond the Middle Kingdom, there are at least 1.2 billion people desiring cars, a decent house attached to a sewer system, potable water, and a fair measure of education and health care.”

The consequences of Chinese, and other poorer nations, realising their hopes of economic development?

“China and the rest of the less-developed world are driving wealthy countries toward a global reckoning with the fossil-fuel-powered, high-consumption, industrial way of life.

… The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom has estimated that some 23% of China’s total emissions result from net exports to the developed world. The Earth’s atmosphere bears a message: we are all in this together. China and climate change have collapsed us and them into we.”

Grumbine and Xu reckon China is poised to assume a leadership role in solving our international environmental problems despite, or maybe as a consequence of, its rapidly growing population and ecological footprint. The US government also seems to now recognise that we’re all in this together. In February, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set out to discuss these issues during her visit to China, and it appears her path may have been previously beaten (behind closed doors) during the preceding administration. In vowing to “restore science to its rightful place” President Obama named Nobel Prize laureate Steven Chu as his Energy Secretary. However, it seems that despite wanting to put science first, domestic political opposition to emissions cuts and to changes in the US energy mix are hindering these moves. Chu said recently to the BBC;

“As someone very concerned about climate I want to be as aggressive as possible but I also want to get started. And if we say we want something much more aggressive on the early timescales that would draw considerable opposition and that would delay the process for several years. … But if I am going to say we need to do much, much better I am afraid the US won’t get started.”

However, Chu went on to discuss his aims for a “massive programme of efficiency for commercial buildings”, vastly improved cost-effectiveness of solar energy, and an interconnected wind power grid. The Obama climate change bill is making progress, but the slow movement on energy policy because of domestic resistance to change has potential global consequences. If the economically more developed countries of the world cannot show that their populations are willing and able to change their lifestyles to be less consumptive, negotiations with developing countries will be hindered.

Pressure from lower levels of government will help push things along. Last week 178 Michigan scientists (including myself) signed a letter to the Michigan Congressional delegation calling for actions to achieve strong and effective federal climate change solutions policies. And scientists can (and need) to do more than just write letters and do their basic (physical) research in their laboratories and at their computers. Reiterating his commitment to science in an address to the National Academy of Science, President Obama asked scientists and academics to engage in society to inspire and enable people “to be makers of things, not just consumers of things”.

A paper by David Pimentel and colleagues, entitled Energy efficiency and conservation for individual Americans, provides some solid numbers and ideas about how we as individual citizens in the economically more developed world can modify our residential energy use, reduce the impact of personal transport, and make informed decisions about what we eat. I’ve listed some of their more interesting suggestions for a sustainable lifestyle below. These are rational and effective ways we can change our lifestyles to live more sustainably and show that we are willing to share the responsibility of mitigating the human impact on the global environment. If we don’t want to be left with mere hope for a sustainable future, we need to show how others in the world can realise their hopes of development whilst conserving energy, water and our other natural resources.

Residential Energy Conservation

  • Improve and upgrade windows – 25% of residential heating and cooling energy is lost directly through single pane windows
  • Plant trees – deciduous on south to shade the house in the summer and allow full-sun in the winter, evergreen trees to the north can act as a wind-break
  • Use the microwave – it’s the most efficient way to steam, boil, and bake vegetables
  • Power-down your computer when it’s not in use – “computers should be turned off if the unit will be left for 2 hours or more and if left for 30 min the machine should be set in standby mode”

Pimentel and colleagues suggest that implementing these, and other, measures around the home would save around 5,600 kWh/year, resulting in savings of about $390/year on home energy costs.

Personal Transport

  • Drive slower – “A reduction in speed from 104 kmph (65 mph) to 86 kmph (55 mph) will reduce fuel consumption 19% (UrbanPlanet). For a 104 km trip, only an additional 11 min would be required if one traveled at 86 kmph. This extra 11 min would repay the person nearly $1.86 in fuel saving, or repay the person $10/h.”
  • Inflate your car tires properly – this will decrease the fuel consumption by up to 3%
  • Get rid of that junk in your trunk – “each 45 kg (100 pounds) of additional load in the car will reduce fuel mileage about 1%”
  • Ride your bike – bicycling uses 25 kcal/km (34 kcal/mile)compared with 938 kcal/km (1,510 kcal/mile) for a mid-sized car

In summary: “[c]urrently, the average American uses about 1,900 l (500 gallons) of fuel/year in personal transport in contrast to the average person in the United Kingdom who consumes 1,700 l (450 gallons) (Renner 2003). If Americans implement the suggestions listed above [and others I haven’t listed] over a 10-year period, it would be possible to reduce fuel oil consumption between 10% and 20% from the current 20 quads of vehicle fuel [approximately 600 billion l or about 16 billion gallons of fuel] consumed in the U.S.”

Food system
The authors highlight several ways in which farmers and policy-makers can aggressively pursue sustainable agricultural practices. They are less precise about what individuals’ can do but offer some general ideas:

  • Eat local products – reduces transport energy costs [and find out where you should buy your wine from here]
  • Eat less (especially less meat) – read more about meat and the environment here
  • “Select aluminum and steel packaging over glass or plastic, for energy conservation. For the same reasons, however, plastic and especially recyclable plastic should be selected instead of glass and/or paper.”

Pimentel et al. summarise: “[w]ell-directed, serious conservation strategies influenced by individuals with supportive state and federal leadership and policies will have an enormous positive impact on transitioning to a sustainable energy future for the United States.”

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