To supplement the discussion we were having in comments about conservation strategies, I managed to locate a study from MIT that I recalled from several years ago. In the article the authors (and a classful of students) analyzed a variety of lifestyles, energy consumption profiles, and carbon footprints. Here’s a quick sketch of what they found:
- Shared services, e.g. defense, roads, education, etc. result in a floor for the impact of individual action.
- Carbon footprint increases exponentially with income.
- The combination of the floor mentioned above and carbon footprint increasing exponentially with income means that the ability of people of middle income to reduce their carbon footprints dramatically is actually quite limited.
- The same factors make it impossible for people at lower income levels to reduce their carbon footprint at all.
So, for example, Bill Gates’s carbon footprint is 10,000 times that of the average person. My calculations suggest that the combined carbon footpints of the 10,000 highest income earners comprise a very high proportion of the whole. Said another way very little can be accomplished while shielding the highest income earners from the effects of whatever policy is put in place or putting in place a policy to which they are unlikely to respond.
A few snippets from the study:
none of the life styles studied here ever resulted in an energy requirement below 120GJ (in 1997). This includes the life style of a five year old child, a homeless person and a Buddhist monk.
due to the combined effects of subsidies and rebound, the magnitude of possible reductions in energy use for people in the United States by voluntary changes in spending patterns appears limited.
To me at least this suggests that some of the frequently encountered strategies, e.g. carbon trading, a carbon tax, should be re-thought. As I indicated in comments if the objective is to reduce our collective carbon footprint the very most important thing we could do is to reduce the size of our military (with commensurate reduction in military activity). I continue to believe that this can be done without adversely affecting national security.
Beyond that (and in the realm of individual action) the most important actions will necessarily be those taken by the highest income earners. Not only is that where there’s the most to optimize but, frankly, there just isn’t enough to target among the lowest income earners. Strategies that fall hardest on the lowest income earners are very unlikely to accomplish the goal.
It’s not clear to me what a strategy targeted at the super-producers would look like. My offhand guess is that government action probably won’t be effective. I think that shame would be the most effective weapon. However, that would require such a dramatic change in societal attitudes that I despair of such a thing taking place.