Consumers have huge environmental impact
The world's workshop -- China -- surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on Earth in 2007. But if you consider that nearly all of the products that China produces, from iPhones to tee-shirts, are exported to the rest of the world, the picture looks very different.
"If you look at China's per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small," says Diana Ivanova, a PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Industrial Ecology Programme. "They produce a lot of products but they export them. It's different if you put the responsibility for those impacts on the consumer, as opposed to the producer."
That's exactly what Ivanova and her colleagues did when they looked at the environmental impact from a consumer perspective in 43 different countries and 5 rest-of-the-world regions. Their analysis, recently published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, showed that consumers are responsible for more than 60 per cent of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 per cent of the world's water use.
"We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses," Ivanova says. "But between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well."
The analysis allowed Ivanova and her colleagues to see that consumers are directly responsible for 20 per cent of all carbon impacts, which result from when people drive their cars and heat their homes.
But even more surprising is that four-fifths of the impacts that can be attributed to consumers are not direct impacts, like the fuel we burn when we drive our cars, but are what are called secondary impacts, or the environmental effects from actually producing the goods and products that we buy.
A good example of this, Ivanova says, is water use.
Cows, not showers
When you think about cutting your individual water use, you might think about using your dishwasher very efficiently, or taking shorter showers.
Those aren't bad ideas on their own, but if you look deeper, like the NTNU researchers did, you'll find that much of the water use on the planet is gulped up by producing the things that you buy.
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Consumers image via Shutterstock.