Re-Thinking Conservation Strategies

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:

  1. Shared services, e.g. defense, roads, education, etc. result in a floor for the impact of individual action.
  2. Carbon footprint increases exponentially with income.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

14 comments… add one
  • john personna Link

    I don’t think you have enough people under the exponential portion of the curve, Dave.

    There are not (300M/10,000=) 30,000 Bill Gateses out there. There is one.

  • john personna Link

    Ye Gods. Figure 4 of your paper shows energy consumption taking off at $10M per year income. That income level corresponds to … something smaller than the top 0.01 percent of earners:

    top 0.01% — $5,349,795

    You are reading that report Sir, with confirmation bias firmly in place.

  • You’re looking at the wrong graph. That’s “economic activity” not global warming. Global warming potential (Figure 3) takes off at a much lower income level and, as I said in the post, the baseline (which includes things like military spending, highways, education, etc.) is quite high.

  • john personna Link

    Sorry, I meant Figure 2.

    And that one is skewed a bit by throwing in a special case “golfer-high” before “golfer-low.”

    I mean, there aren’t that many golfers to start with, but they broke them apart, why?

  • BTW, you’ve got the causality backwards in claiming confirmation bias on my part. I pulled the reference to this study out of an old post. The idea that there might be super-producers hadn’t even occurred to me before I read it and then began to noodle around.

    I’m not sure why they analyzed things the way they did. In the body of the study they did point out that they found variances within lifestyles.

    I should also point out that the scales are logarithmic. To my eye where things “take off” is at around $1 million income.

  • john personna Link

    I think I accused you of bias because I found the closing paragraphs hard to justify.

    And again, the take-off only looks appears literally at $2.3M with those pro-golfers, split between low and high.

    I’m sure we can see how golfer-high would have more jet travel than others with merely the same income. It is a high business cost for him, and not even “consumption.”

  • john personna Link

    So, to recap, we have at least 3 nines (99.9) percent of the population in the flattish area of the energy consumption curve.

    But AGW remediation must start with the 0.1 percent (or lower), because you know, they HAVE to go first.

  • john personna Link

    (I have the flu and am cranky today 😉

  • Drew Link

    Kill Tiger Woods.

  • john personna Link

    And fans/groupies who travel with him! Does ABC sports deserve to live? This could get complicated.

  • Sam Link

    This is another reason to like a progressive consumption tax.

  • john personna Link

    Sam, a flat tax on GHG emissions would be progressive, and would impact that pro-golfer just fine.

    Of course, I still call BS on mr. golfer being typical of people with $2.3M income. That was either put in for human interest, or to tip the curve.

  • Sam, a flat tax on GHG emissions would be progressive, and would impact that pro-golfer just fine.

    Same with income.

  • john personna Link

    I guess the key difference, Steve, is that while we need to collect enough taxes to cover the deficit, I’m not really looking for balanced carbon emissioins.

    A light carbon tax, which shifted everyone’s consumption to the left, would satisfy me. This is largely because I don’t see the US balancing world production. Any initial step, gambit, by us is just a statement of commitment for international bargaining.

    If the US owned the world, and we wanted to fix AGW, then maybe we would be justified in progressive increases, to drive pro-golfing from the face of the earth.

Leave a Comment