Coronavirus is not the World’s Greatest Threat – It is This

A team of scientists from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have revealed in one of their detailed analyses of environmental research that affluence is the greatest threat to the world: even more than COVID-19. The report titled Scientists’ Warning on Affluence explains the need to bring significant lifestyle changes to attain true sustainability. 

The report confirms the alarming trends of environmental degradation as a result of human activity, but points out the shortfall of not clearly identifying the underlying forces of overconsumption and of spelling out the measures that are needed to tackle the overwhelming power of consumption and the economic growth paradigm.

“We cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems – like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” “We also have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.”
Professor Tommy Wiedmann from Australia’s University of New South Wales Engineering (Report’s Lead Author)

What is the link between Consumption and Environmental Impact?

Consumers are the ultimate drivers of production. It is their purchasing decisions that set in motion a series of trade transactions and production activities leading to environmentally damaging decisions along supply chains. Over the past few decades, consumption ( and to a lesser extent population growth) have mostly outrun any beneficial effects of changes in technology. This study holds true for many countries.

The figure above shows the example of changes in global-material footprint and greenhouse-gas emissions compared to GDP over time

Why to characterize Consumption as Affluence?

Inequality is commonly described the Gini index, with 0 characterising total equality (all individuals equal) and 100 representing total inequality (one individual owning everything). World countries’ Gini indices of income inequality range between 25 (Scandinavia) and 63 (Southern Africa). The world’s Gini index of income inequality is around 75, higher than the corresponding index of any national population. Simply put, the world as a whole is more unequal than any individual country.

Since income is linked with consumption, and consumption with impact, current income inequalities can easily transform into impact inequalities. To illustrate, international Gini coefficients for CO2 emissions, material consumption and net primary productivity (both measured from a production and consumption perspective) range between 35 and 60. This means that the world’s top 10% of income earners are responsible for between 25 and 43% of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10% income earners exert only around 3–5% of environmental impact. These findings mean that environmental impact is to a large extent caused and driven the world’s rich citizens.

What are the possible solutions?

Since the level of consumption determines total impacts, affluence needs to be addressed reducing consumption. World Economic Forum’s founder Professor Klaus Schwab called for a great reset of capitalism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic just before the World Environment Day 2020. COVID-19 pandemic has left the whole world devastated bringing economies to a standstill and individuals urging to earn their bread. The current time demands directing resources into new and improved systems and processes, rather than shoring up the existing ones which can bring lasting changes.


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