Shift To Low-carbon Consumption Could Hurt Poorer Nations: Study
3 April 2012
If consumers in wealthy countries shift their spending to help curb climate change, buying fewer goods and more services, the economies of lower-income nations could suffer, says a new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
Researchers found that changing rich-nation consumption to limit greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing fewer products, reducing waste and eating less meat would shrink international trade with poorer countries, where many goods – especially clothing – are made.
The result could be a decline in the average gross domestic product (GDP) of lower-income nations of up to 4.5 percent, and a fall of up to 5.7 percent in the average annual GDP of the world's 48 least-developed countries (LDCs), says the study.
“This may not seem like a lot, especially given the urgency of mitigating climate change, but people in these countries are already mired in poverty,” Elena Dawkins, a research associate in SEI's UK-based York Centre and co-author of the report, said in a statement.
“Per capita incomes in LDCs are only one-tenth those in the UK. Clothing production in particular is a big source of revenue for several of them, so while the planet will thank you for buying fewer outfits, the people who sewed them may not be so happy.”
The study notes that achieving sustainability may require shifts in consumption, as well as corresponding changes in technologies and processes that produce goods and services, in order to cut emissions of the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide, and curb the planet's rising temperature.
"But it also requires giant strides in global equity, so all people have access to basic security, human rights and social benefits," says a policy brief based on the research.
The researchers based their calculations on a 2009 British study showing that an aggressive effort to change consumption patterns, while keeping overall spending levels the same, could reduce associated emissions by at least 10 percent.
CLIMATE AND DEVELOPMENT BENEFITS
“If we want to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, shrinking our carbon footprint is a must,” said Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at SEI’s U.S. Centre and the report's lead author. “But we can try to find ways of lowering our footprint that do not disproportionally harm people in the poorest countries.”
One way of doing this could be to buy goods from countries with production processes that emit relatively low volumes of greenhouse gases. The amounts released during clothing manufacturing, for example, can vary by a factor of four or more between countries, depending on how much electricity they generate from renewable sources, how much they depend on manual labour versus machines, and the materials used, the study says.
Sourcing clothes from lower-income, lower-emitting countries could reduce emissions just as much as buying fewer clothes, it concludes.
Rich countries could also help poorer countries reduce emissions from manufacturing through direct technology transfer, buying carbon credits or providing aid through vehicles such as the U.N. Green Climate Fund.
And they could start importing higher-cost, higher-quality and value-added goods, which could boost development and lower emissions if the goods last longer and sell for higher prices, with a big share of the additional value retained by the producing country, the report notes.
Further research is needed to find new ways of achieving low-carbon development in poorer countries while moving consumer spending in rich countries onto a more sustainable path, it says.
"As interest in behavioural measures, consumption and lifestyles grows ... analysts and policymakers should take care to explore measures that could have benefits both for the climate and for global development," it concludes.
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