Achieve a Sustainable Lifestyle for All
Despite growing awareness about the causes of climate change, sustainable living remains elusive for many nations in the world. While individual lifestyle changes have been promoted as a solution, their real benefits are often unclear. What are the missing pieces to make sustainable living a reality for everyone? What are the causes of problems that we are not aware of? It is important to identify the systemic issues and create a safe and empowering environment for all nations. Let’s have an open discussion about how we can achieve it for all.
Climate Change, Global Warming, and Environmental Problems
Climate change, global warming, and environmental problems may be related, but they refer to different aspects of nature. Climate change is the trend of average temperature, humidity, and rainfall patterns observed for more than 30 years of periods. Earth’s surface temperature is increasing at a fast pace since the mid-19th century. This is the trend and is global warming. However, the same CO2 that causes global warming in the lower layers of the atmosphere, the Troposphere (11km from the Earth’s surface) and Stratosphere (50km), has opposite effects in the upper layers. Increasing CO2 has caused and will continue to cause a cooling in the upper layers of the atmosphere. These changes in the thermal structure of the Earth’s atmosphere will lead to more severe weather and climate change.
Although global warming is one of the biggest environmental problems, we have many other problems such as waste management, pollution, food/water insecurity and waste, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and more. These issues could be individually solved but most of them are interconnected. Therefore, we need policymakers and corporations to create systems supporting consumers’ efforts to improve our environment.
Common sustainable living ideas as a solution to climate change
We are told that sustainable lifestyle changes can empower individuals to make a positive impact on the environment and inspire others to follow suit. If this is true, why only 23% of people have actually made changes while 65% of them are seriously concerned about climate change and environmental issues? What is causing the aspiration-action gap?
Here are examples of sustainable lifestyle changes commonly suggested:
- Reduce Energy Consumption: Conserving energy is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Consumers can switch to energy-efficient appliances, use LED light bulbs, unplug electronics when not in use, and make conscious efforts to reduce overall energy consumption in their homes.
- Adopt Renewable Energy Sources: Transitioning to renewable energy sources is crucial in reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Consumers can explore options such as installing solar panels on rooftops, purchasing renewable energy from utility providers, or supporting community-based renewable energy projects.
- Embrace Sustainable Transportation: Transportation is a significant contributor to carbon emissions. Consumers can reduce their carbon footprint by opting for public transportation, carpooling, biking, or walking for shorter distances. Electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid cars are also environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.
- Practice Mindful Consumption: Making conscious choices about what we consume can have a significant impact. Consumers can opt for locally sourced, organic, and sustainably produced food to support sustainable agriculture practices. They can also reduce single-use plastic consumption by using reusable bags, bottles, and containers, and choose products with minimal packaging.
- Waste Reduction and Recycling: Proper waste management is vital for a sustainable future. Consumers can minimize waste by recycling paper, plastic, glass, and metal products. Composting organic waste at home can also reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Additionally, embracing the principles of the circular economy, such as repairing and repurposing items instead of discarding them, can contribute to waste reduction.
We have about 8.5 billion people on the planet and the collective small action can make a difference. But are you really convinced that your extra effort does something on a global scale?
Why lifestyle changes alone aren't enough?
When you look at the sustainable lifestyle solutions above from different angles, it is clear that lifestyle changes alone are not enough. Let’s look at the facts.
- Reducing energy consumption: The majority of carbon emissions come from the production of electricity and heat generated by power plants, not your energy consumption.
- Renewable energies: Renewable energy can be clean and green. However, it is important to remember the development stage of the systems. Electrifying energy requires batteries, wires, and others that demand a lot more minerals than we currently use. Mining these minerals such as Lithium, Cobol, and Copper adds significant carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. For example, electric cars require 400% more metals and minerals to build compared to conventional cars. In reality, we will need to reduce 75% of the total number of cars to fully switch to electric cars. Also, disposing and recycling decommissioned equipment such as batteries and solar panels is urgently needed. Otherwise, there will be overwhelming amounts of toxic materials going into landfills.
- Transportation: In 2020, we saw about a 12% drop in carbon emissions from transportation globally. This was due to the pandemic lockdown. However, this was still not enough to achieve the Net Zero scenario. Compared to commercial transportation and private jets, switching your daily trip from driving a car to public transport or riding a bike will not make a significant difference.
- Mindful consumption and reducing waste: Planning carefully to avoid throwing things without using them is good for everyone. However, extra time and effort to sort out recyclable materials or upcycling may not be worth the impact you can make. There need to be systems to make it work. For example, grass bottles are 100% recyclable but putting them in the same bin with other materials is a problem. The liquid left in the bottles contaminates other materials and shuttered grass pieces are impossible to remove safely. Therefore, recyclable materials placed in a recycle bin often end up in landfills. Carbon emissions are also associated with the production and transportation of goods and services. Addressing the carbon footprint of entire supply chains requires systemic changes, such as sustainable manufacturing practices and efficient logistics systems.
What are the biggest causes of climate change and how we can achieve real improvement?
Military Operations: Did you know that military carbon footprint is at least 5.5% of total global emissions? If it was a country, it is the fourth largest national carbon footprint in the world. This is just an estimation because military emissions are excluded from the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement. Countries are only reporting their military emissions voluntarily. The IPCC assessment report barely discusses this sector. Increasing military supplies and arms lead to more damage to the environment and it is hard to justify the purpose, the better security. More transparent reporting in this sector is needed.
Groundwater Depletion: Melting ice sheets and glaciers is commonly understood as the cause of sea level rise. However, we have been pumping groundwater, 2,150 Giga tons between 1993 to 2010, and this raised the sea level to 6.24 mm. Groundwater is mostly used for industry and agriculture but a large population in the world needs it for drinking and other daily activities. As global warming causes drying surface water, we pump more groundwater. Pumping more groundwater accelerates sea level rise. The sea level rise can contaminate the surface and groundwater.
Water is the most precious resource for all lives and more transparent management is required. We could save water in our homes, but 70% of groundwater is used for irrigation to grow crops. You would think water to grow crops is important to supply enough food. But only 55% of crops grown globally are for food, and one-third of the 55% is wasted. We would need to improve the entire cycle of water usage.
Emissions in Pharma Industry: Pharmaceuticals are to help lives and support our health. But without a healthy environment, we cannot maintain long-term health. The pharmaceutical industry generates 48.5 tons of CO2 per $1 million in revenue. This is 55% higher than the emission from the automotive industry. The healthcare sector’s carbon footprint is 4.4% of global net emissions, and pharmaceuticals are a big portion of this. In addition, the exploitation of plants and animals for active ingredients pushes popular species to become endangered. While medical supplies are important, we can all look after ourselves by eating healthy and maintaining healthy lifestyles to reduce the demand.
Importance of critical thinking
Reducing a small amount of carbon footprint every day is still important, but seeing the real impact on a global scale will take time. It requires individuals, corporations, and policymakers to work together to move toward the same long-term goal. We would need to understand not only one problem to solve but also other activities connecting each other to find the real cause and solutions to the problem.
Remember that average consumers hold the power to change because, without consumers, products and services cannot be sustained. Policymakers and businesses will need to adjust their decisions according to what consumers spend money on. Therefore, if a healthy environment and life are important to you, you need to consciously assess your choices, do your research, and design your lifestyle. The solutions commonly suggested by the majority may not be good for the long term or they may not present an accurate outcome.
Here are some examples.
Plastic Packaging: You won’t see advertisements about the negative impact of sugar (including artificial sweeteners), but we see a lot of advertisements for diabetes medications and processed food. If we think logically, reducing sugar which is mostly hidden in processed food such as cereals, snacks, and soft drinks will make our bodies healthier. Also, reducing processed food and medication consumption will reduce plastic packaging consumption. Medication and plastic recycling are short-term solutions. Long-term solutions should be promoting fresh food, incentivizing producers, and improving the distribution system for fresh produce.
Palm Oil: Palm oil is associated with deforestation and loss of biodiversity. We often see “palm oil free” on cosmetic products, but 71% of palm oil is used for processed food. If we stopped using palm oil for cosmetics, palm oil will be used for food instead. Switching from palm oil to other vegetable oils will make deforestation problems worse because palm oil needs far less land space compared to all other plants for the same amount of oil. The real solution is again to reduce processed food consumption.
Transportation: Switching to electric cars creates some new problems. Mining 400% more minerals compared to conventional cars will cause significant environmental impacts. One example is what is happening in Cobalt mining in Congo due to the increased demand for electric items. Transporting minerals, a long distance from mining sites to refineries to parts manufacturers to assembly also produces extra carbon emissions. Electric cars are also >30% heavier than conventional cars. The additional weight is a big risk for infrastructure and buildings. Batteries contain many toxic materials and recycling systems need to be developed urgently since these batteries last only 8-12 years. There are many things to think about electrification.
We all like quick and easy solutions. But we often need to understand the interconnectedness of issues and find better solutions.
Small everyday actions from individuals can make big positive changes, but we need to take action toward the outcome we want. Even though it is harder to look at multiple connecting problems together and deep dive into the facts, we all need to investigate more than just following trends. It doesn’t need to be groundbreaking technology or an invention that can solve one problem but creates different problems. By critically analyzing facts and considering the connections between various issues, we can collectively create a brighter and more sustainable future.
The Elusive Green Consumer - https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-elusive-green-consumer
Where key minerals used in EVs come from - https://www.sae.org/news/2022/03/where-key-ev-minerals-come-from
Transport - https://www.iea.org/topics/transport
CO2 Emissions in 2022 - https://www.iea.org/reports/co2-emissions-in-2022
Emissions by sector - https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector
The upper atmosphere is cooling, prompting new climate concerns - https://e360.yale.edu/features/climate-change-upper-atmosphere-cooling
Explained: The relationship between climate change and wildfires - https://www.visualcapitalist.com/how-climate-change-is-influencing-wildfires/
Where are clean energy technologies manufactured? - https://www.visualcapitalist.com/where-are-clean-energy-technologies-manufactured/
Global Warming vs. Climate Change - https://climate.nasa.gov/global-warming-vs-climate-change/
War is a climate killer - https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/economy-and-ecology/war-is-a-climate-killer-6094/
Estimating the Military’s Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions - https://ceobs.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/SGRCEOBS-Estimating_Global_MIlitary_GHG_Emissions_Nov22_rev.pdf
Yes, removing groundwater is changing Earth’s tilt - https://bigthink.com/starts-with-a-bang/groundwater-earths-tilt/
How much of the world’s cropland is actually used to grow food? - https://www.vox.com/2014/8/21/6053187/cropland-map-food-fuel-animal-feed
Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618336084
WHO advises not to use non-sugar sweeteners for weight control in newly released guideline - https://www.who.int/news/item/15-05-2023-who-advises-not-to-use-non-sugar-sweeteners-for-weight-control-in-newly-released-guideline
WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children - https://www.who.int/news/item/04-03-2015-who-calls-on-countries-to-reduce-sugars-intake-among-adults-and-children