“It makes sense that the richer you are, the greater your purchasing power and the environmental impacts associated with it,” she said. “And the richer you are, the more you fly and drive.”
But this is not necessarily the case, especially in modern times. Renewables are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels, and many rich cities are encouraging healthy and sustainable habits. In Germany, Hamburg wants to become car-less in 20 years. In Italy, Milan and Rome are introducing partial car bans to fight rampaging pollution. The age when higher GDP meant more emissions has steadily passed, and economic growth has decoupled from economic growth. More and more, it’s our personal habits and our sources of energy that influence our carbon footprint.
“Different factors influence the way we consume,” she said. “In our study, income appears to explain much of the variation in the regional factors, so essentially if we know how income changes over time, we can hypothesize about how emissions would follow.”
Everyone has to eat
Indeed, Ivanova and her colleagues looked at many individual aspects, finding interesting, though not surprising, differences. For instance, when they looked at emissions from the purchases of clothing, services and manufactured products, Italy and parts of the UK, especially London, had some of the highest emissions. After all, that’s what you’d expect from two of the biggest fashion centers of the world.
But when it came to food consumption, things were largely uniform — everyone has to eat.
But this doesn’t mean that what you eat doesn’t play a key role in our footprint. As we’ve discussed many times before, meat especially plays a huge role in our society’s emissions. In all likelihood, reducing your meat consumption is one of the single most important things you can do in terms of sustainability. So this doesn’t mean that all people eat and what you eat doesn’t matter — instead, it means that both poorer and richer areas host people who are conscious of what they eat, and people who don’t.
To clear this and many other questions, researchers now want to go even deeper. They want to look at all the possible details. For instance, even when discussing something as simple as cheese, things can get quite complex. From the grains the cow is fed, to the conditions the cow is kept in, the fabrication process, the packaging, and then the delivery — it all adds up, and it’s all important. This is what Ivanova wants to clear out in her future work.
“The story of the cheese gets pretty complex, as you can imagine, and every stage comes with environmental impacts,” she said. “We are limited in the detail with which we can explore the global economy and the journey of products.”