Consumption not falling, new economic models needed

In August 2009, the European Union (EU)  released the Communication ‘GDP and beyond: Measuring progress in a changing world’, which outlines the need to develop a comprehensive environmental index to complement the current measure of economic activity – the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A pilot version of this index is due to be presented in 2010.

The recession has done little to change consumption levels and we need to change how we value the world’s resources. It provides a novel way of understanding the ‘consumption explosion’ by calculating a ‘World Ecological Debt day’ – the day the world pushed the planet into ecological debt. This was the 25th September in 2009, and means that for the remainder of the year we are consuming environmental resources that cannot be replaced. The date was only 24 hours later than last year, suggesting the recession is having little impact on consumption.

Several concerning trends are contributing to this disappointing performance. So-called ‘boomerang trade’ is particularly environmentally wasteful. This is where identical goods are both imported and exported from a country. For example, the UK exports 4,400 tons of ice cream every year to Italy and then re-imports 4,200 tons back again.

Energy security is also a major issue. Dependence on imported energy in the UK – just to name one country – has been steadily rising since 1999. In 2004 it was no longer able to meet energy demands from domestic resources and its dependence on imported energy since has increased five fold.

Similarly, the developed world has also become far less self-sufficient in terms of food. Climate change and extreme weather events place pressures on food resources and increase general concerns about food secutiry. For example, crop yields in southern Europe fell by 30 per cent after the European heat waves in 2003.

Population growth and migration should not be blamed for environmental problems, and the problem lies with overconsumption: it is calculated that by 4am on 2 January, one person in the US will already be responsible for the equivalent in carbon emissions that a Tanzanian would take a whole year to generate. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January, needing thus roughly 4 days.

The ecological footprint should be adopted as an official measure of the impact on global resources. The ecological footprint of a population is the total area of land and water that it requires to produce the resources it consumes and absorb the waste it generates.

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