July 27, 2009
How do you define standard of living?
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.