July 27, 2009

How do you define standard of living?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:35 pm by Chris

My beloved is a greenhouse gas auditor. During discussions with a big-wig in her field, he opined that the West would need to lower its standard of living in order to make serious cuts to our carbon emissions. I disagree quite strongly, and I think the root of my disagreement is the difference between a perceived standard of living,and the things that actually matter in maintaining our comfortable (on the whole) lives.

How much of what we call “standard of living” is actually energy intensive? This is a serious issue, if we expect to make arguments to and fro about emissions cuts and development scenarios, based on some half-arsed concept of how we live our lives and what aspects of that lifestyle we shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice. I argue that the aspirational things that people in the Third World see (cars, plasma TVs, etc) are peripheral to our daily lives. What constitutes the guts of a First World standard of living is education, healthcare and the rule of law, but we take those things for granted and they aren’t obvious to outsiders.

In the spirit of offering concrete examples to support my argument, I’m going to do a run-down of things that I think are important to my Western standard of living, and then look at some things that I don’t think are as important, that constitute low-hanging fruit on the tree of carbon reductions.

Stuff what matters:

1: Sanitation. Most of the major diseases that dogged cities 300 years ago weren’t defeated by vaccines or antibiotics, but by better hygiene. Clean running water and an effective sewage system come under the general category of things we use every day and take for granted, but their absence would be noticeable within hours and cause major problems within days. I contend that a city without reliable, universally available sanitation is not a civilised city (you listening, Auckland? Mutter mutter power cuts St Heliers mumble mumble). So, what’s the carbon footprint of this essential service, per capita? Naff all. Most of the infrastructure is of the build-once and forget for a century type. In terms of methane releases and so on, well the a waste products would still be decomposing whether they were collected in a sewer or not, so that’s a non-argument, especially if the scheme some of my compatriots are trialling to make power and fuel from sewage bears fruit.

2: Healthcare. Yes, number two behind sanitation because you really can’t have one without the other. Basic sanitation isn’t really limited to the First World anyway, but how does the phrase “Third World hospital” grab you, globetrotters? Exactly. Americans can stay out of this argument. Carbon cost of healthcare? Well, a huge chunk of First World healthcare happens at the GP/clinic level, in small and low-tech buildings with modest electricity bills. A few large hospitals in a city of a million or more peoople is hardly going to fill the individual carbon piggy banks with lumps of coal, is it?

3: Education. Despite the continual protestations of Libertarian dickheads to the contrary, a comprehensive, compulsory and (mostly) free education system is one of the absolute mainstays of civilised society. You can take or leave university from this, but I think everyone having a high-school education and 90-odd percent literacy is a mark of a certain lifestyle at a national level, don’t you? Australian claims to have 100% adult literacy merely proving that they’re liars… Carbon budget of an education system, to at least secondary level? Please.

4: Rule of law. Possibly should be higher up the list. Nuff said? Carbon budget? Pffft. Probably less than most Third World nations expend on their military, anyway.

5: Reliable communications. Telephone, internet, radio stations, TV, bus timetables, daily papers that aren’t party propaganda (looking at you again, Auckland). You agree? They’re an essential part of my lifestyle, I’ll tell you right now. Carbon footprint? Probably higher than you think, actually, especially for anything Interwebs related. Could be a lot lower, all those 240V to 3/5/12V transformers individually chew up a lot of power on their own (I’m talking cellphone chargers, modem powerpacks, etc), plus the by now well-known electricity appetites of server racks. Not likely to prevent us cutting our carbon emmissions long-term, but something to keep an eye on.

Stuff we can live without, or reduce a lot.

1: Transport. Transport emissions are the low-hanging carbon fruit in almost every country of the world. But in terms of “lifestyle”, what does that mean? This is one of these aspirational things. People in the Third World think that people in the First World all drive around in cars. People who are in the First World all think they need a better car. I suspect that those Third World vehicular aspirants don’t really appreciate the economics of having a large (let’s face it, huge) pool of second, third, forth-hand vehicles, but let’s leave that alone for a moment. What’s the relationship between kilometres covered in private vehicles and standard of living? Pretty shaky, I’d argue. The easy easy stuff to shave off the carbon budget is commuting by car. It never ceases to annoy me that pundits conflate owning a car with driving a car. I’ve got two cars, neither one of which is emitting anything right at the moment, as is the case most days of the week. That’s because I don’t drive to work. Whenever anyone does one of those “international standard of living” comparisons, access to public transport is one of the plusses, so you can hardly argue that being dependent on your car for transport constitutes a high standard of living. Having the car available for trips out of town, to the hospital, the beach, etc, etc, is certainly part of a high standard of living in most places. But the brutal truth is, if people only used their cars for those sorts of trips, or had a fossil-fueled car for those trips and an electric car for commuting, that would slash their carbon emmissions by probably 50%. Not to mention doing wonders for urban air quality. I’m not exaggerating the case for this: in New Zealand (and probably lots of other places) reducing your vehicle mileage is the single biggest thing you can do to reduce you carbon emissions. How much do you spend on fuel in a month versus electricity? Add those together and that’s your energy bill, but one is a lot more flexible than the other (not to mention the proportion of your power bill that probably comes from renewable sources).

2: Consumer crap. Plasma screen TVs, split-level air-conditioning, a new car every other year (as distinct from driving the car you have). You know the kind of thing. It takes energy to make stuff, and it increalingly takes energy to run this kind of stuff. To be honest, this is window-dressing compared to transport, but it adds up. There’s a subtle addendum to this, which is owing a huge aspirational 5-bedroom house that costs you a fortune to heat… I’m a big fan of double-glazing and massively thick insulation, myself: that gets you the quality of life (a comfortable home) without the energy expense. Actually, people tend to to spend the same but be more comfortable (and healthier) when they live in a well-insulated home. But that doesn’t excuse the horrible single-glazed McMansions going up in sprawling car-dependent suburbs as I write this. Arrrgh! They’re not even nice places to live, ffs…

3: Inefficient farming. You paying attention, there in the back with the stripey shirt and the beret? Personally, I’m pleased to live in one of the most efficient farming nations on the planet, but when it comes to emissions we could do so much better. I’m not talking about the farting cows, but about the over-application of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilisers (which then boil off into nitrous oxides, giving you about 50 times the greenhouse bang for your buck) and management practices that don’t retain carbon in the soil. None of this is rocket science, all of it is well known, and frankly what difference does it make to my standard of living how much fertiliser a farmer wastes? I’ll still pay too much for cheese if Fonterra has anything to do with it. In Europe and America, this is a lifestyle issue: the lifestyle of farmers who depend on subsidies and deliberately warped markets for their survival. My heart pumps custard for them, it really does… actually no it doesn’t, if they want to waste money they can waste it on me, did I mention I don’t have a job at the moment, and I’m good at spending public funding?

So there you go. None of the things I’m prepared to give up from my First World lifestyle are all that carbon intensive, and the really carbon intensive stuff is negotiable anyway. Discuss.



  1. Deborah said,

    Dr Snow and the Broad St pump

    The rule of law is very important, as indeed are the other things you mentioned. There’s a fair few contracts that are domiciled in New Zealand precisely because we have a consistent rule of law, a very effective and highly regarded judicial system, complete with able judges and a good appeals system.

    And yes, education. Takes an educated population to support all those other nice things. And education is critical to freedom.

  2. Chris said,

    That’s an interesting link, Deborah. For some reason I thought the germ theory of disease got established earlier, but I should know better.

  3. Andrew said,

    Hi Chris
    That was brilliantly written and extremely thought provoking. As the aforementioned “big wig” that you disagreed with quite strongly, I agree with you (Denise has just read your blog and brought me in a very large multicoloured clowns wig which she thinks suits my status better!). I guess my argument is the way most measure their standard of living is strongly linked to GHG emissions. Higher standard of living, higher emissions. Having said that I agree the way we measure our standard of living is somewhat warped and does it really capture our happiness and what is important in life? Although I am sure that many would argue that happiness is being able to watch Hollywood stars on their plasma screen TV’s (don’t start me on Hollywood and their preaching holier than thou attitude while all the time spewing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily) and using their playstation for more than 8 hours per day.

    You also touched on a very good point about home insulation. I have a talk that I give where I tracked energy use for a year before and after putting insulation into the ceiling and under the floor and there was absolutely no difference in energy use. However before we froze and afterwards we were warmer and I am sure healthier. In my talk I then go on and discuss the Victoria effect but that is another story.

    Having now discussed your blog with Denise we got onto discussing the problems that arise from focusing our accepted standard of living down to the priorities that you mentioned. One problem is that both as people and as a nation we become more insular. We travel less, after all holidays are an extravagance in a carbon constrained world. With less travel international relations breakdown, we have less understanding of other cultures and the world in general, and that is an extremely bad thing!

  4. Chris said,

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for stopping by. I almost changed it to medium-sized wig, but there’s the whole “what’s blogged is blogged” ethos.

    Home heating and insulation is definitely an interesting area, and I wasn’t sure how far to push that point. Your experience ties in with other things I’ve read, and suggests that we unconsciously tolerate homes a lot colder than we’d actually like. Hopefully newer houses built to more aggressive standard can be both warmer and more energy efficient, but the turnover of houses is so slow that we’re stuck with the existing ones for a long while yet.

    I’m 100% with you on the problem of becoming insular (as it is, I don’t think our politicians get out enough). My argument is that we can trim a huge amount of transport energy out of our lives by dealing with the everyday use, before we have to touch holidays by jetplane. Although if we’re talking major cuts (90% by 2050 for the developed world is one of the targets being bandied about, isn’t it?) then everything is under question. It is hard to imagine that kind of world. I’m a big fan of sailing ships for moving cargo, and I’ve argued in the past that the international trade in things that fit on ships will be the last area to suffer from lack of fossil fuels, but I don’t see sailing ships becoming a popular way to visit the rellies in Australia…

  5. heteromeles said,

    Very, very true. Extremely good point.

    Now try selling this in a capitalistic society that depends on hooking people on products they don’t need.

    Actually, they makes sacrificing to the gods as a driving force for society seem a little less weird, when you phrase it that way.

  6. Chris said,

    You’re missing my point: it’s not a question of “selling” the idea, it’s a question of what we can do to cut our carbon emissions by half before it’s too late. Do you like commuting in a petrol-powered car? Would you rather have the option of catching a train? There’s a huge chunk of your personal carbon budget, slashed. Not your neighbour’s, or someone in another country: yours. And it would probably save you money.

  7. Thomas Jørgensen said,

    I wrote a whole post about important quality-of-life enhancing energy uses you have missed, (Go into your kitchen.. Look around. Think. Now turn the light off, and think some more.), and realised that it was utterly besides the point, so it now occupies internet niravana. There are two, overarching problems with energy conservation as a strategy for dealing with climate change.

    The first problem is diminishing returns – starting from an energy prolifigate status quo, reducing energy use by 5% will often pay for itself purely in economic, selfish terms as the cost of conservation measures is less than the savings on your energy bill. Each subsequent 5 % reduction, however, gets more and more expensive, and it is impossible to reduce use to zero, or even get close, because energy is not just wasted, it is, in fact, used – A lightemitter that transformed electrons to photons in the human visual range with no loss would still use some electricity. This in turn implies that conservation cannot stop global warming – If we halve our energy use without changing the way we produce energy, all we have achived is that we are now cooking the planet slower. –

    The second problem is that it misidentifies the problem – Energy use isnt inherently harmful to the world; acid rain, carbon emissions, mountaintop removal – these are the things that are bad for the enviorment – Electrons in the grid are not. Further, any realistic plan to reducing CO2 emissions relies on replacing the use of fossile fuels for heating and for transport with electricity wheresoever possible, which means that even if overall power use falls, electricity demand will rise, and most likely not just by a little, but enourmously so. (if everyone goes to work in an electric car, or an electric train, thats represents something on the order of a 50% rise in electricity consumption alone) – and despite this rise, we absolutely must keep the price of electricity reasonable, or people will swap back to burning gas and oil.
    Nuclear is affordable, its clean, and most importantly, it is ready to be put into use right now, on any scale we are willing to pay for. – which is why I back it.

  8. Chris said,

    Thomas, I think I was pretty careful to refer to carbon rather than energy. Andrew, who posted above, is involved in carbon footprinting for agricultural products. At some point, as we cut energy consumption, it will drop below the level where we won’t need subsidised energy (fossil carbon) to keep up. But as things stand, we’re relying on that fossil carbon.

    Nuclear power is not clean (I lived in Australia for five years, uranium mines make oil fields look environmentally friendly, and one of the major ones is in the middle of Kakadu), it is not affordable (existing nuclear plants were built as a side-road of a military fuel chain, and they’ve all had their decommissioning costs underwritten by governments: these have run into the billions in several cases). It is certainly not ready to be used now: building nuclear plants isn’t the kind of thing you want to rush (the Russians did that) and we’d need thousands of the buggers ready to come on-line tomorrow to make any appreciable difference by 2020. By the way, look up New Zealand’s modern and historical stance on all forms of nuclear energy before you try and tell me that I need nuclear power.

    Do you really think we can build a zillion nuclear power plants and just keep on our merry ways? The mind boggles. Ultimately, we HAVE to conserve energy. The point I was trying to make is that it isn’t enough to wave your hands and say “Oh, we can’t do that, our standard of living might suffer”, if your idea of a standard of living is full of unexamined premises and things that you could quite happily do without. Think seriously about this point: most people in New Zealand (and many other countries, including the US) could cut their energy footprint in half if they weren’t dependent on fossil-fueled cars for transport. Even if that pushed up electricity demand by 50% (which I don’t believe for a variety of reasons) that’s a 25% saving in one fell swoop with basically no downsides. Can you fault my reasoning on that?

    By the way: I’m aware that my kitchen appliances use energy, but most of the embodied carbon in food is already in it when I take it off the shelf. That’s the point I made about inefficient farming.

  9. Thomas Jørgensen said,

    In order: The enviormental impact of uranium mining is real, but the important thing about nuclear is that uranium is used in absolutely minute quantities, which means that the harm per kwh produced is also tiny – That mine you visited supplies a noticable faction of global nuclear energy all by itself. The ExternE studies did a comprehensive study of the enviormental impact of all forms of energy production in use in europe from cradle to grave, and broke it down on a per kwh basis, and the negative externalities from nuclear are identical to those from wind or well planned hydro, so if nuclear isnt clean, absolutely *no* form of energy is. Do you really want to argue that the enviormental impact of wind turbines is unacceptable?
    If you dont belive me, ExternE works fine in google. .

    RE: the military subsidy. The original reactors were, indeed, a “no expenses spared” military/industrial bondoggle. This has no great relevance to today, since those are fifty year old sunk costs paid under president Eisenhover – You dont get the money back by refraining from using the technology.

    Further, there is quite a lengthy list of countries which have civil nuclear power, and have never had any interest in its military applications – Japan, switzerland, sweden, germany, ect, ect. (if your argument is that uranium extraction and enrichment for weapons manufacture is a subsidy.. eh, you are simply flat out wrong. The nuclear arsenal drove the price of uranium up, not down, and fuel isnt a significant cost in any case.)

    Decomissioning costs as a subsidy is, essentially, a lie. The military reactors,, and the research reactors built and operated by governments in the dawn of the nuclear industry were, indeed, decommisioned on the tax payers bill, because governments built and owned them, todays civil power reactors factor those costs into their operating costs, and given their sixty year operating lives, it amounts to very, very little.

    Using New Zeeland stance as an example of an energy policy to be emulated makes zero sense – New Zeeland is essentially a sparesly populated mountain chain placed atwarth the prevailing winds, which has resulted in a bonanza of easily exploited hydro power. – Using anything else than hydro when nature has gifted you with a geography that insanely favorable to it would be daft, and getting to a zero carbon economy from that starting point via conservation and power substitution is, indeed, possible, because nature “gifted” you with a carbon neutral energy budget, and all you need to do is stay within it. – However, what you must realise is that this is unique to countries that have significant amounts of natural clean energy. – Iceland, Norway, New Zeeland.

    But for most countries this is simply do not an option. If you are Germany or France, the real choices are coal and nukes, and that is not a difficult choice if you care at all about the planet.

    Finally: I think you missed my central point very badly. 50% carbon emission reductions per capita do not fix global warming. Currently, only a small faction of the world enjoy an acceptable standard of living, and if the entire world starts emitting carbon at half the rate europe currently does
    -We cook the planet, quickly –
    If the world stays as unequal as it currently is, and the rich world cuts its carbon emissions by half..
    -We still cook the planet, just slightly slower-

    Neither of those are acceptable outcomes. We fundamentally need to change the energy inputs of industrial civilization so that it becomes carbon neutral, or at least close enough so that brute force engineering solutions like scrubbing carbon from the air and pumping it underground, or planting trees and burying them can work. Conservation is useful, since it will reduce the total number of reactors that needs to be built, and the darn things arent free, but it is not a solution.

    Basically, I am simply of the considered opinion that the only way that we are realistically going to close down every single existing coalfired powerstation in the world is by offering the world a better source of baseload power, and that the best way to do that is to pursue nuclear development on a heroic scale.

  10. Chris said,

    Thomas, I’m not here to debate nuclear power, and I’m beginning to think you only came here to be a nuclear fan-boy, Get your own blog if you want to do that. I’m interested in how one defines standard of living, which is key to any question about reducing the carbon footprint of a given society, You’ve used the same rhetoric above without addressing any of the points in my original post.

    What aspects of your standard of living use the most carbon? How easily could you change them? What would you refuse to give up?

  11. heteromeles said,

    Hi Chris,

    I’m not going to debate nuclear power either, but with respect, I have to disagree. It is a sales job, in a weird sense. Our society is effectively on an addiction to stuff. We need money to get stuff, we need status and education and a social network to get stuff, and then the stuff providers, in order to justify their existence (as they see it), need to make sure that we’re willing to invest in more stuff.

    If we just cut back to the infrastructure necessary to support seven billion people at a third world prosperity level (i.e. no starvation, little disease, etc) we would, temporarily at least, solve the carbon crisis. Then what?

    Our society currently is organized around the exchange and accumulation of stuff, preferably in some sort of competitive environment (at least, that’s the cultural meme. Reality is more corrupt). Part of what we need to do is find another way to organize societies so that they don’t see environmentally damaging stuff as a good thing. Note that this has been done many, many times, by traditional societies that were in the business of surviving within their means. What should we be doing?

  12. Thomas Jørgensen said,

    – Leaving aside the question of the atom, this is actually a hilarious question, because honestly, I dont think I could reduce my carbon foot print any more and still have a life worth living.
    From the top: I live in an apartment building, which is as energy efficient as any form of habitation gets, I, by preference, eat a diet heavy on vegtables and cheap seafood, prawns, mussles, ect, which, again, is very low impact, I bike everywhere, again, by personal preference (also the dire lack of parking in my building!) I go on vacation by train, and mostly spend those gliding down hill on a pair of composite boards and being towed back up them by a electric motor ultimately powered by norwegian hydro. (skiing rocks!) and my hobbies all revolve around either my computer or my “workshop” (I build things. Then give them as gifts on the next occasion. jewelry, knives, corkscrews, funky LED lighting arrangements, mod cases, speakers.. anything that catches my fancy.) So, basically, my personal carbon foot print is as low as it can reasonably go, but there are a few snakes in this garden.
    Firstly, my electric bill says loud and clear that while I might be responsible for less carbon than the average, my footprint isnt *zero*…
    Considered on a global scale, I am infinitely more sustainable than, oh, your typical american, but scaled up to six billion people, my annual energy use would present rather serious issues in a world that runs on coal, and secondly, I see no reasonable way to talk everyone into living like I do, and no unreasonable ways that would work short of severely totalitarian politics

    – Moral suasion and social engineering have limits – It is possible to do better urban planning, so that more people live in a walkable / bikable enviorment, it is not possible to ban car ownership. It is possible to have all consumer products rated and labled for their energy efficiency at the point of sale, it is not possible to get people to not buy computers and dishwashers at all. And so on it goes.
    A theoretical course of action only constitutes a real climate policy option if there is a way to write it into law – which means that if we are to save the world from burning, we must rely on those plans which are within the space of possible and plausible state actions.
    I think it possible to talk the world into leaving coal in the ground by legislative fiat, if we offer up an alternative source of power on the same scale.
    I do not think any politician in a position of power, democratic or authoritarian, anywhere, anywhen, is ever going to stand up and say that its time to abandon consumption. Because doing so would be suicide, either electorially, or literally.

  13. Chris said,

    I think you’re pretty fuzzy on the science behind climate change; it’s not about the world cooking or burning, it’s a fairly specific problem with the balance if infra-red absorbing gasses in the atmosphere, particularly carbon.

    To be honest, your lifestyle sounds pretty low-carbon and you seem happy with it (although you don’t mention where you live, so perhaps your apartment is heated all winter by coal-fired power stations). If everyone live more like you, I think we’d have some breathing room. I almost certainly use more carbon than you do, because my public transport is a bit ordinary and cycling in Auckland sucks (and I play games that involve carrying kayaks, surfboards and camping gear around the countryside) so I drive about 10 000km a year.

    Your footprint doesn’t need to be zero. That’s a strawman argument, often made as an excuse to do nothing. There is a certain level of energy use and carbon intensity which would allow atmospheric CO2 to be stable as some sane level instead of rocketing ever higher like it currently is. Pre-industrial was 275ppm, we’re currently at 389 and climbing, and I’m in strong agreement with those who think we should aim for 350ppm. This is still higher than the pre-industrial level and obviously allows for a certain elevation of the natural CO2 turnover in the atmosphere. Exactly what that means in terms of emissions is a question for a climate modeller… Actually I should try and find out…

  14. Chris said,

    Sorry, that last comment was directed at Thomas.

    Heteromeles: What I think we should be doing first is seeing what we can get rid of without really noticing it: the low-hanging fruit. As I said, most automobile miles are pointless and not particularly enjoyable, and offering an alternative might even improve standards of living. Getting this stuff underway now means we can get some real reductions by 2020, and perhaps show people that the medicine doesn’t have to taste bad. At the moment our (especially my) elected leaders spend all their time talking about how awful it’s going to taste and that we don’t really want it, do we?

    I’m not convinced that cutting back infrastructure is the right way to think about it. You need to ask what the infrastructure actually does that’s bad, before you suggest getting rid of it. I’m not really up to speed with the details, but it sounds like a lack of infrastructure is part of your problem in the US: no national grid, limited transport alternatives, etc.

    I think you might have a pretty easy time persuading people that they’ve had something silly rammed down their throats, just at the moment. As the world reels in the smelly aftermath of a massive credit collapse, and all. We’ve got our own version of the consumerist bubble in New Zealand: property ownership as retirement savings. But that’s a blog post for another day.

  15. heteromeles said,

    Thanks Chris,

    I’d point out that for my last four jobs, I’ve had an 8-15 mile commute, on roads unsuited to bicycling. That’s the kind of insidious problem I’m talking about. It’s too far to walk, and there was no form of public transportation between here and there.

    This is an insidious problem, because the affordable housing and the reasonable jobs, at least where I live in California, tend to be in places where it is not just convenient to drive, but necessary due to safety issues, and also, to be honest, because I prefer a 15 minute mindless commute to a one hour dangerous commute each way (the danger is cars, by the way).

    There’s a lot of people in my shoes, and there’s a lot of potential saved energy. The problem is that, with land at US$100,00/acre even now in California, convincing people that they need to rebuild the cities so that more people can live within walking, biking, or train distance of their jobs is quite problematic.

    Otherwise, I used to have a life more like Thomas, and I thought it was great. Getting back to that level of simplicity….not in the cards yet, barring an earthquake.

  16. […] law (or at least social stability), and all the other trappings of modern civilisation (and I have pondered before on the limited extent to which any of this depends on energy use). Educating woman doesn’t […]

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