Back to the Future: Simplify to Save the Planet – News Block

Substituting simpler products with lower emissions and similar quality of life factors may be a key approach to help tackle climate change.

About 7 years ago, my wife and I purchased a $350 cordless long-handle vacuum to help clean our 800-square-foot apartment. Back then they were considered quite innovative, but today there are many similar products on the market. With a 20-minute battery life, it was enough to vacuum the entire place.

A broom would have done the job too, since the apartment had a hard tile floor, though it wouldn’t have picked up dust and debris as well. The broom also has advantages: it is cheaper and does not require charging.

7 years after receiving the vacuum it can barely pick 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 similarly to a broom today.

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

Substitution with 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 often have a wide range of potential products or services to choose from. Do I want a pair of jeans or chinos? Juice or soda?

Substitution may 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 since consumers likely won’t change otherwise. For the purposes of this blog post, it’s not defined as anything other than products that address a similar need/want (eg thirst/hunger), but it’s possible to dive into that more broadly.

New innovations can replace older products, improving the quality of life for consumers and making the innovation preferable to older substitutes. For example, switching from a bicycle to a car allows for easier transportation, greater range, and the ability to carry more things. This is great.

However, many consumers and businesses have historically (and currently) not considered the trade-off between improved quality of life from innovation and carbon emissions from substituting alternative products and services. The adoption of innovations may not be ecological.

Climate-unaware innovation is not feasible indefinitely given finite resources

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

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

The problem is the marginal innovations that offer limited additional functional improvement and increase emissions. A lot modern innovations hailed as success stories are quite marginal. In a finite world, infinite fringe innovations to improve life that depend on scarce resources they are neither sensible nor possible.

To illustrate this point – BMW recently developed a car that can change color. This will be considered pretty nifty by some consumers, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the ability to get from A to B that any vehicle will provide (ie 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 lost?

Where did all the shareholder value go?  Comic

Simpler products with limited loss of quality of life can be substituted to help address climate change.

Choosing simpler, low-carbon products and services can be a means of tackling climate change, without compromising quality of life too much. For example, choosing to drink water instead of beer also quenches thirst, acknowledging that 168L of water for a pint of beer. Or go on holiday locally instead of abroad to avoid aircraft emissions, which would also be cheaper.

Undoubtedly, the substitutions to face climate change can suppose a significant loss of quality of life. For example, moving to smaller homes compromises living space. Using bicycles or public transportation instead of cars can compromise comfort. 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 and requires a detailed assessment of willingness to pay.

Choosing to live more simply now would come at a cost, but a forced reduction in living standards due to climate change is taking place nonetheless, which will only get worse as time goes on.

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

Choosing to live longer simply goes against traditional economic logic. That being said, some simplification of how developed economies consume seems inevitable, as if consumption cannot be controlled, World Economic Forum forecasts indicate that climate change could cost up to 18% of GDP by 2050. Against that backdrop, climate action to simplify consumption of lower-emission products and services is likely to be cost-effective.

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

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