As smoke-filled air from Canadian wildfires blanketed large parts of North America and major insurers just stopped writing new home insurance policies in California to limit their exposure to climate-induced catastrophes, our consumer economy continued to hum along without a hitch in an eerie contrast.
US air traffic controllers continued to handle 45,000 flights a day, with over 5000 airplanes in the sky during peak times. Americans collectively drove more than three trillion miles in the last 12 months. The US produced 106 billion pounds of red meat and poultry in the past year. These staggering numbers from the world’s largest economy are important because transportation and food production are among the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and are directly related to our lifestyles.
The bleak future
Sustainable consumption was a common theme in the early days of cleantech more than a dozen years ago. Climate change seemed real but distant, and the hope was that consumers would be part of the solution by consuming thoughtfully. This idea has fallen by the wayside as the climate crisis has become more immediate. It is no longer a future crisis; it is already here. We are now thinking instead about wearing N95 masks to protect against routine smoke from wildfires and bracing ourselves for the heat waves and power outages to come in the summer.
Climate change that is already in progress is largely baked in for the next two decades, but the decades beyond that could go in any number of directions. The biggest uncertainty in climate projections doesn’t come from the physics of the planet but is rooted in our own behavior. The trajectory of future climate is still in our control for now, barring any tipping points that may push it over a cliff.
The question that is gnawing at my mind, and maybe at yours too, is what most of us would be willing to do for the sake of a planet that is gasping for air.
Not all hope is lost
We still need shelter that is comfortable and a car for transportation in many places. We need these things to be not only efficient but also electrified and then to be supplied with renewable electricity so that the energy we consume daily is carbon-free. This of course means major changes in the energy and transport sectors, which are well in progress. The government incentives that we’ve long waited for are here and US private sector investments in renewable energy will double by the end of the decade.
But like most complex problems, the solutions to the climate crisis are not that simple. Yes, we have gotten off to an encouraging start on electrifying buildings and transportation. In order to stay within a 1.5-degree C average temperature rise, we still need to figure out how we’ll produce 60% of global electricity from renewables by 2030 and overcome the challenges of connecting it to the grid.
We also need to find a way to expand worldwide grid-scale battery storage 44-fold by 2030, while also building increasingly large batteries for electric vehicles which could account for half of all auto sales by then in both the US and China. And we need to do all of this while the critical minerals needed for batteries could be in short supply as early as 2025.
The longer-term beyond 2030 is more worrying. The US Energy Information Agency projects that natural gas will continue to supply about 20% of US electricity by 2050. Worldwide, the International Energy Agency expects energy-related CO2 emissions to decline just 13% by 2050 based on today’s policies. If government policies stick only to incentives and do not utilize other tools like emission caps or carbon taxes (as it seems likely), then we may have to rely on unproven and costly technologies like engineered carbon removal to have any chance of preserving a barely livable planet.
This brings us to one of the biggest climate opportunities that we have left on the table so far: modifying our consumption habits to align with what the planet can sustain.
Change from within
For version 2.0 of sustainable consumption to have an impact while the climate crisis is accelerating, it will have to be different from the first go-around. Rather than a laundry list of small consumer actions, the focus must be on a few critical solutions that have a clear chance of moving the needle. These solutions must be implemented at scale, which means many of us doing the exact same things every day in order to send the right market signals. Companies will produce what we are willing to consume, so it is up to us to force changes in production.
The Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan identifies home energy use, personal transportation and food as the three main sources of a US household’s carbon footprint. This suggests a roadmap for how consumers acting in concert could change the emissions trajectory.
For starters, this means treating every kWh of electricity and every gram of critical minerals as precious resources, assuming we are already working towards electrifying heating and transportation. We can commit to getting a home energy audit and fixing the energy leaks that are a drain on the electric grid. We can shift our heaviest electricity use, such as drying clothes or charging cars, to midday when solar energy peaks and electric grids are at their cleanest.
We can drive the smallest possible electric vehicles to save both energy and critical minerals. We can combine trips and reduce the number of miles we drive. Those of us who are fortunate to have a work-from-home option can use it to take a big bite out of our energy use and emissions from transportation. Typical emissions generated by multiple Zoom meetings each day are insignificant compared to driving to the office.
There are other large emission sources in our personal lives for which there are no easy technological solutions. Chief among these are air travel and meat consumption, neither of which can be addressed without confronting our lifestyles more fundamentally. We would have to consciously choose to fly less frequently and eat significantly less red meat.
Explicitly thinking about consuming as few resources as possible is not going to be easy or natural for most of us after a lifetime of consumption limited only by what we could afford financially. The climate crisis, however, cannot be solved with any certainty without a change to that mindset. The challenge now is to figure out how we can maintain a basic standard of living without exceeding our ecological means. Technology can help, but we as consumers should be in the game and meet the technology halfway.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.