Back for the future – simplify to save the planet

Back for the future - simplify to save the planet

Substituting to simpler products with lower emissions and similar quality-of-life factors can be a key approach to help address climate change

Roughly 7 years ago, my wife and I got a long-handled cordless vacuum cleaner for $350 to help clean up our 80-square-meter apartment. Back then they were considered pretty innovative, but there are many similar products on the market nowadays. With a battery life of 20 minutes, it was sufficient to vacuum the whole place.

A broom would also have done the job, as the apartment had a hard-tiled floor, though it wouldn’t have picked up the dust and debris quite as well. The broom has advantages too – it’s cheaper and doesn’t require charging.

7 years on from getting the vacuum cleaner, it can barely suck up dust, but our broom is still going strong and hasn’t lost any of its functionality. A broom doesn’t really suffer from obsolescence. A broom from 100 years ago works in a similar way to a broom today.

This vacuum cleaner/broom example illustrates a pretty fundamental point regarding innovation, economics and climate change – it is possible to substitute to simpler products with a lower carbon footprint, but likely with a reduction in functionality.

Substituting to new products can improve quality of life, but innovation can come at an environmental cost

Substitution in economics talks about how consumers switch between products or services with a similar purpose. When making a purchase, consumers can often choose from a wide range of potential products or services. Do I want a pair of jeans or chinos? Juice or Soda?

Substitution can be a key concept to help address climate change to the extent that consumers can switch to products or services with a lower carbon footprint that offer a similar (or close) quality of life.

The “similar quality of life” bit is the most important as consumers aren’t likely to switch otherwise. For the purposes of this blog post, it’s not defined as anything more than products which solve a similar need/want (e.g. thirst/hunger), but it’s possible to dive into that in a bigger way.

New innovations can substitute for older products, improving the quality of life of consumers, and making the innovation preferable to the older substitutes. For example, switching from a bike to a car allows for easier transport, longer range and the ability to carry more stuff. This is great.

However, many consumers and companies historically (and today) have not considered the trade-off between improved quality of life from innovation and carbon emissions when substituting to alternative products and services. The adoption of innovations may not be eco-friendly.

Innovation which is not climate conscious is not feasible indefinitely given finite resources

Innovation comes at an environmental cost where it draws on scarce resources or increases emissions. So while it improved consumer entertainment choices when video killed the radio star, the addition of VCRs to home media probably wasn’t necessarily sustainable. The sustainability of adopting new innovations is a fleeting thought at best.

Of course, innovation by itself is not really the problem. Innovation can help to address climate change, as with green energy, and there is value in innovation that offers a material functional improvement.

The problem is the marginal innovations that offer limited additional functional improvement and increase emissions. A lot of modern innovations hailed as success stories are pretty marginal. In a finite world, infinite marginal innovations to make life better which rely on more scarce resources are not sensible or possible.

To illustrate this point – BMW recently developed a car which can change colours. This will be considered pretty nifty by some consumers, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the ability to get from A to B which any vehicle will provide (ie the substitute vehicles). Nothing really changes if such products never existed. Should scarce resources be used for such small aesthetic innovations? In a low-carbon future, will such innovations be missed?

Where did all the shareholder value go? Comic

It is possible to substitute to simpler products with limited loss of quality of life to help address climate change

Choosing simpler, low-carbon products and services can be a means to address climate change, without compromising quality of life too much. For example, choosing to have water instead of beer quenches thirst too, recognising that it takes 168L of water for one pint of beer. Or holidaying locally rather than overseas to avoid aircraft emissions, which would be cheaper also.

Without a doubt, substitutions to address climate change can entail a significant loss of quality of life. For example, switching to smaller houses compromises living space. Using bikes or public transport instead of cars can compromise convenience. It’s not an easy thing to do.

However, since it requires three to five planet Earths to sustain consumption at developed economy levels anyway, such substitutions should be acceptable for emission reductions, compared to the loss of quality of life incurred. Of course, measuring such trade-offs is very difficult requiring a detailed willingness to pay assessment.

Choosing to live more simply now would come at a cost – but a forced reduction in the standard of living due to climate change is happening anyway, which will only get worse as time goes on

Living more simply comes at a cost. Not necessarily to an individual consumer, but economy-wide to GDP and jobs. The development of more products and services creates jobs throughout the supply chain from production to retail. Not to mention that ongoing consumption is actually what sustains economies and counts towards GDP.

Choosing to live more simply goes against traditional economic logic. That being said, some simplification of how developed economies consume feels inevitable, as if consumption can’t be reigned in, World Economic Forum forecasts indicate that climate change could cost as much as 18% of GDP by 2050. In that context, climate action to simplify consumption to lower emission products and services is likely to be cost-effective.

For individual consumers or organisations making substitutions of their own choosing would be challenging. After all, what is the immediate incentive? However, it could play into government policy decisions.

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