Consumers have huge environmental impact. We like to blame the government or industries for the Earth's problems, but what we buy makes a big difference.
The world's workshop – China – surpassed the United States as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on Earth in 2007. But if you consider that nearly all of the products that China produces, from iPhones to tee-shirts, are exported to the rest of the world, the picture looks very different.
"If you look at China's per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small," says Diana Ivanova, a PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Industrial Ecology Programme. "They produce a lot of products but they export them. It's different if you put the responsibility for those impacts on the consumer, as opposed to the producer."
That's exactly what Ivanova and her colleagues did when they looked at the environmental impact from a consumer perspective in 43 different countries and 5 rest-of-the-world regions. Their analysis showed that consumers are responsible for more than 60 percent of the globe's greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 percent of the world's water use.
"We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses," Ivanova says. "But between 60-80 percent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption. If we change our consumption habits, this would have a drastic effect on our environmental footprint as well."
Consumers are directly responsible for 20 percent of all carbon impacts, which result from when people drive their cars and heat their homes. But even more surprising is that four-fifths of the impacts that can be attributed to consumers are not direct impacts, like the fuel we burn when we drive our cars, but are what are called secondary impacts, or the environmental effects from actually producing the goods and products that we buy.
A good example of this is water use. When you think about cutting your individual water use, you might think about using your dishwasher very efficiently, or taking shorter showers. Those aren't bad ideas on their own, but if you look deeper you'll find that much of the water use on the planet is gulped up by producing the things that you buy.
Consider beef. Producing beef requires lots of water because cows eat grains that need water to grow. But because cows are relatively inefficient in converting grains into the meat that we eat, it takes on average about 15,415 liters of water to produce one kilo of beef.
Dairy products require similarly large amounts of water to produce. When a group of Dutch researchers looked at the difference in producing a liter of soy milk with soybeans grown in Belgium compared to producing a liter of cow's milk, they found it took 297 liters of water to make the soy milk (with 62 percent of that from actually growing the soybeans) versus a global average of 1050 liters of water to produce a liter of cow's milk.
Processed foods, like that frozen pizza you bought for dinner last night, are also disproportionately high in water consumption. Making processed foods requires energy, materials and water to grow the raw materials, ship them to the processor, produce the processed food items and then package the final product.
This is particularly bad news when it comes to chocolate, which is one of the most water-intensive products we can buy. It takes a shocking 17,000 liters to produce a kilo of chocolate.
Researchers have also looked at environmental impacts on a per-capita, country-by-country basis. While the information is sometimes surprising – Luxembourg has a per capita carbon footprint that is nearly the same as the United States – it mostly follows a predictable pattern. The richer a country is, the more its inhabitants consume. The more an individual consumes, the bigger that person's impact on the planet.
But the differences between individual countries are extremely high. The countries with the highest consumption have about a 5.5 times higher environmental impact over the world average.
The United States is the overall worst performer when it comes to per capita greenhouse gas emissions, with a per capita carbon footprint of 18.6 tons CO2 equivalent, the unit used by researchers to express the sum of the impacts of different greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and sulphur hexafluoride.
The US is followed closely by Luxembourg, with 18.5 tons CO2 equivalent, and Australia, with 17.7 tons CO2 equivalent. For comparison, China's per capita carbon footprint is just 1.8 tons CO2 equivalent. Norway, at 10.3 tons CO2 equivalent per capita, is three times the global average of 3.4 tons CO2 equivalent per capita.
The results for individual countries also reflect the effects of the electricity mix, or the fuel source that countries rely on for electric power. The prevalence of nuclear or hydroelectric power in countries such as Sweden, France, Japan and Norway means that these countries have lower carbon footprints than countries with similar incomes but with more fossil fuels in their energy mix.
For this reason, a significant portion of household impacts from Sweden and France come from imports (65 and 51 percent respectively), because the products that are imported are mostly produced with fossil fuels.
The advantage of identifying the effects of individual consumer choices on the different environmental measures is that it pinpoints where consumers in different countries can cut back on their impacts.
Households have a relatively large degree of control over their consumption, but they often lack accurate and actionable information on how to improve their own environmental performance. The two best, and easy, ways to cut your environmental impact are to stop eating meat and cut back on your purchases.