Economic growth and the battle against climate change don’t go hand in hand

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Translation: Julie Summers

If we continue to fixate on economic growth, we’ll never be able to solve the climate crisis we’re facing, says Rakel Guðmundsdóttir. Rakel recently earned a Bachelor’s in Political Science with a final thesis titled “Does Every Little Bit Really Count? Green Consumerism as a Solution to the Climate Crisis.”

“First and foremost, I was looking at green consumerism, whether there are limits to how much we can rely on that sort of consumption as a solution to the climate crisis and how green consumerism manifests in Icelandic consumer behavior. Among other things, I looked at how our capitalist economy has increased individual consumption and contributed to the environmental problems that we face today.

“At the beginning of my thesis, I looked at capitalism and the emphasis placed on economic growth and tied that together with environmental issues and how we plan to tackle them simultaneously. Basically, the idea is to address environmental issues within the framework of capitalism, which leads to this green consumerism, because it’s consumption that drives economic growth. So the government has continued to promote consumption; we’re just consuming in a more environmentally friendly manner than before.”

Responsibility shifted to the individual

Rakel says that governments around the world have resolutely shifted the responsibility for dealing with climate issues to individuals. “What I find really interesting is the emphasis on individual initiatives. I started taking a look at that because I feel like in our society there’s an extra emphasis on personal responsibility, and I started wondering how realistic that really is, whether you’re really saving anything.”

Green consumerism is when people make purchasing decisions with environmental factors in mind. “You choose products that have less packaging, are certified with the Nordic Swan Ecolabel, etc., but green consumerism is not the same as sustainable consumption. I also wanted to see whether there were any limits to this green consumerism.

“As I was researching, I kept coming across this idea of the rebound effect. What that really means is that you do something eco-friendly in one situation and then maybe consciously or subconsciously use that to justify something that’s not eco-friendly somewhere else. I felt like that was something I could totally relate to and I wanted to see whether it was possible to find evidence of the rebound effect in Icelanders’ consumption habits.”

Asked whether it’s difficult to live a completely sustainable lifestyle in contemporary society, Rakel says yes. “I think people should be able to do it, but it’s very difficult. All manufacturing has some negative impact on the environment, really, but you can choose to live as sustainably as possible. You can take advantage of all the services available in order to be as sustainable or environmentally friendly as you can. But of course, it also depends on what sort of demands we make when it comes to lifestyle. Do we need to travel abroad once a year, twice, five times? Do we need to buy new clothes every month and go everywhere in our own cars?”

Humanity would need 27 earths if everyone consumed like Icelanders

For her thesis, Rakel got data on Icelanders’ consumer behaviors and travel habits from a study that was being conducted at the time by University of Iceland professor Jukka Heinonen. “Basically, I was looking at personal responsibility and whether green consumerism is a solution to the climate crisis, and I wanted to look at Icelanders’ consumption patterns in that context,” says Rakel.

In her thesis, Rakel writes that if all the earth’s inhabitants had the same consumption habits as Icelanders do, mankind would need 27 earths, because Icelanders use up the earth’s natural resources so much. “We’re just such voracious consumers, to the point of gluttony, really. It really surprised me, and it’s so ridiculous. I feel like the discourse completely sidesteps this huge issue, consumption. It’s sort of the elephant in the room that no one talks about, the fact that consumption levels are just way too high,” says Rakel, adding that we’ve been overusing natural resources since the late 1960s.

“That means that back then, we had already reached the limit of what we should be using, but we just keep depleting our natural resources, so clearly something terrible is going to happen.”

Rakel says people often look at Iceland as an environmentally conscious country. “It’s also interesting to look at Icelanders’ consumption, because we have all this green energy and people look to us like we’re some sort of eco-country, but we also have an incredibly high standard of living, and maybe that doesn’t quite go together with the environmental aspect.

“For my thesis, I also looked at Icelanders’ consumption-based carbon footprint, which is a really interesting means of measuring the carbon footprint because you take the product, look at the total emissions output, where the product was manufactured, how it was transported and what is done with it, and then you project the total emissions output onto the individual. So that’s how we measure the emissions output and get a better sense of how large a role consumption plays in the carbon footprint.

“The results revealed that Icelanders’ consumption-based carbon footprint is among the highest in Europe and much higher than emissions inventories indicate. Those are the sort of units of measurement that we use when we say that we plan to reduce emissions in Iceland by about 40% by the year 2030, but that doesn’t take into considerationemissions in some far-off countries that we’re responsible for causing. I found that very interesting, and it brings into sharp relief just how high consumption in Iceland really is.”

Environmental problems invisible to Icelanders

Rakel says Icelanders tend to have a general awareness of environmental issues but make little effort to reduce their own consumption. “According to my findings, most people are recycling, but that’s interesting because at the same time, consumption has never been higher. We might be buying and consuming exactly the same amount, and then we just recycle everything. You have to ask yourself how much good that does. Maybe some people use their cars less, but no one is prepared to fly less often, and that’s sort of a classic example of the rebound effect. It also surprised me that according to the data I received, there aren’t all that many people reducing their meat consumption,” says Rakel, adding that it’s actually a problem that the climate crisis isn’t visible in Iceland; most goods are imported, so Icelanders’ consumption habits affect other countries.

Late last year, the Icelandic government presented a proposal for dealing with environmental issues between now and 2030. Rakel says she’s pleased with the plan, but it isn’t radical enough. “The proposal is great, and they’ve put a lot of money into it, but I still think there’s a lot lacking. This government has said they plan to be carbon neutral by the year 2040, which is a big promise. We want to reduce emissions by 40%, but what that really means is that we need to reduce everything we’re doing by about 40%. We’re not doing that. Being carbon neutral means that we’re going to offset all emissions somehow. We’ve heard so often that we need to take action immediately, but I don’t feel like that’s happening.”

“The system as a whole needs to change”

One of Rakel’s conclusions is that while individual consumption is the root of the problem we’re facing, individual efforts to address the problem have little impact in the grand scheme of things. “Obviously, that’s an incredibly difficult paradox. To a large extent, it’s the system that we’re living with. The system just doesn’t work. It drives this individualism and personal consumption, but I don’t think we’ll ever manage to reduce consumption enough to solve the problem.

“The system as a whole needs to change. Constantly fixating on economic growth while trying to meet some kind of environmental goals, the two just don’t fit together and never will. Of course, it’s impossible to say, ‘Individual efforts don’t matter’; obviously that’s incredibly negative, but the government can’t place all the responsibility on individuals. We need some much bigger actions,” says Rakel.

Asked whether more rules and regulations are needed, she says yes. “I think so. It’s been proven that individual efforts have a limited effect. We’ve known for decades that we have a problem and that we need to do something about it, but we’re not doing anything. I think we’ve reached the point where we need to limit certain things and push for others.”