Can we balance our carbon budget by using less stuff?

• • •

Not everyone agrees

1. The more we save, the more we use. The well-known historian Vaclav Smil believes that dematerialization is subject to the famous Jevon’s paradox – where efficiency gains in products and processes ultimately make them cheaper and more attractive, driving general use. He noted that modern cans use 37% less aluminum than decades ago, but growing sales increased total aluminum use by more than a third. In 2017, a group of MIT researchers investigated 57 cases of alleged dematerialization and concluded that “no dematerialization takes place even for information technology cases with rapid technical progress.”

2. Services will not save us. Also, the advent of digital sharing services and a shift in manufacturing won’t necessarily help, found Blair Fix, an economist at York University, Canada. In a 2019 paper, he found no evidence that shifting economies from producing goods to providing services leads to carbon dematerialization. “Instead, a larger service sector is associated with greater use of fossil fuels and greater CO2 emissions per person,” he wrote. “This suggests that ‘dematerialization through services’ is not a valid sustainability policy.”

3. Circular economies are not snowballing. . .yet. What if sustainability efforts don’t focus on new products, but focus on taking full advantage of the things we’ve already made? The concept of a circular economy goes far beyond recycling, it includes products designed to be repaired, reusedreused or dismantled when they reach the end of their (first) useful life. This can greatly reduce their overall energy consumption – and by some estimates save the global economy a trillion dollars annually. But this long-awaited transition remains elusive and faces just as forcefully social and cultural barriers to dematerialization efforts.

• • •

What should you pay attention to?

1. SUVs and living room. Dematerialization will only gain momentum if people want – and are willing to pay for – smaller, more sustainable products. Instead, average house sizes have increased in many economies: by 150% since 1980 in the US, and by even more in China in a comparable period. Meanwhile, today’s thicker cars 20 to 30% bigger than comparable models a generation ago. Will these trends continue as climate change and energy prices bite?

2. A supply-side crisis. Dematerialization could come from the supply side, rather than consumers asking for it. Shortages of processing chips and raw materials for batteries, and rising energy costs, could shift car design towards smaller, more affordable models, while fuel, material and labor inflation could make mega-townhouses equally unappealing.

3. Regulatory Action. Some think the first step to getting people to want less stuff is to regulate advertising. In London, junk food ads have been banned from the tube network since 2019, avoiding an estimated 100,000 cases of obesity. Climate activists are now calls for similar restrictions on the marketing of carbon-rich products.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

Leave a Reply