Material consumption

There are major environmental impacts arising from the materials and products we consume. Some direct consequences are becoming well-known, such as the problems of plastics in the oceans. But there are also climate change impacts arising from the extraction, processing, transportation, use and discarding of a much wider range of materials. Although the associated emissions from the manufacture of products may originally occur in emerging economies, this is in large part to satisfy consumer demand in richer countries. Products of this kind include vehicles, electronics, clothing, construction materials and machinery. Around a quarter of global emissions are tied to such traded goods[1]; in the UK, imports may account for as much as a third of our climate change emissions[2]. The UK is second only to the US and Japan in the volume of emissions it imports in this way.

Some level of material consumption is necessary for our wellbeing and happiness. But in many societies we are doing so at scales that are unprecedented in human history, and far beyond what the natural environment is capable of sustaining. Beyond a certain point, buying and consuming more things is not even linked to an increase in happiness, and may even have the opposite effect.

Researchers in the CAST Centre will consider the ways in which our impact on the climate and wider environment can be addressed through changing and limiting how we consume. Our work will look to how we can develop a future, low-carbon society in which people’s needs are met without overusing resources. We will consider how previous social changes have led to our contemporary consumer cultures, and seek lessons from history and elsewhere in the world as to how we might move in a better direction. We will also explore opportunities to promote reduced consumption at different scales, from the individual to the national policy level.

[1] Davis, S. J., Peters, G. P., & Caldeira, K. (2011). The supply chain of CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(45), 18554-18559.

[2] Davis, S. J., & Caldeira, K. (2010). Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(12), 5687-5692.

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