Climate and Consumer Habits

Climate and Consumer Habits

October 2018 | Politics

Solving global warming will require changes to consumer behaviour. That's easier said than done.

According to leading scientists last week, we should cut down the amount of meat we eat because of the impact that agriculture has on global warming. This has been picked up by environmental pressure groups who sharply criticised Clare Perry, the UK climate change minister, for refusing to promote the message as part of the government's education initiatives related to global warming. This isn't for the same reason as her Republican counterpart in the US. All UK political parties accept the science behind climate change. Her refusal was due to concerns about the 'nanny state', the strong Conservative belief that governments don't have the right to dictate how people should live. This is a valid concern in the UK, where the civil service have frequently been accused of possessing a Whitehall knows best attitude.

The problem though is that telling people to stop eating red meat, is only one part of the solution. People would need to substitute the beef in their diets with an alternative, which would need to be grown somewhere. Friends of the Earth claimed that the land freed from meat production could be left fallow, allowing nature to reclaim it. This doesn't necessarily follow. The more likely scenario is that, where possible, it would be reused for different types of agricultural production. This would limit the claimed environmental benefits. Then there is the ethical issue of how to deal with the thousands of cattle that no longer have a home, environmental groups aren't known for supporting the wholesale slaughter of animals. It's good for pressure groups to be pointing out the contribution of agriculture to climate change, but as with other areas they need to think through their solutions a bit more.

In the same vein, there was a paper blaming Netflix for contributing to global warming. Online video streaming uses 40% of the world's Internet bandwidth, and the electricity required to power all those routers and servers have to come from somewhere. Cutting back on the world's Netflix habit would allow for a reduction in the amount of bandwidth capacity available, and thus carbon emissions. A fair argument but one many consumers simply won't understand. It also completely ignores the fact that few industries have been as aggressive as big tech in going carbon neutral. Apple, Microsoft and Google all power their data centres from renewable energy. Hardware manufacturers compete on their ability to reduce the power consumption of their products. In the long-term, the problem of data centre carbon emissions is going to be solved by the tech industry, without the need for changes to consumer behaviour.

That's not to say consumer behaviour changes aren't required to reduce climate change - they clearly are. However, before scientists start advising consumers what to do, their advice needs to be analysed by economists and tech experts to analyse the full impacts. Some changes promoted by environmentalists are going to happen anyway, even without the need to directly change consumer habits. In the long term, technology will be required to minimise the impact of temperature rises. This is already going to happen with electric cars, which should make a major difference to the levels of urban pollution. Economic factors will have an effect too - they are already causing the closure of coal power stations, rather than political or environmental pressures.

Climate change is a complex problem and relying on wholesale changes in consumer behaviour to resolve it will likely fail. People will change it presented with a good reason, but only if the changes are don't too drastic. The story of seatbelts in cars proves that. However, changes that are too inconvenient will get major pushback, as will changes that challenge deeply held cultural traditions. Eating beef falls in the latter category in many countries, watching Netflix in the former. It's fortunate therefore that the industries most able to help mitigate the impact of the required changes are among the industries most committed to fighting global warming.

Written by Alan Chatfield