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Can ‘living well’ stop climate change?

20 Dec 2018
Photo of cyclist in front of sky
(Courtesy: iStock/momcilog)

Humanity has just 10 years to turn things around. The most recent IPCC report says that we need to reduce anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 or else be locked into a warming scenario that none of us wants to see. So, what to do? The answer, according to a new study, requires a fundamental change in society. It lies in satisfying human needs like happiness and health instead of focusing on economic growth.

“We need to start thinking, ‘is the carbon footprint that comes from different economic activities actually worth it in terms of societal outcomes?’,” says Gibran Vita from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “There is potential to live fulfilling lives with much less environmental impact.”

The challenge is to build societies where our activities are more holistic, enabling us to balance achievement, relaxation, work, play, romance, responsibility and freedom

Gibran Vita

Quality of life is correlated with economic growth. As a result, economic growth is often viewed as the best way of improving quality of life. But there comes a point where more possessions don’t necessarily make us much happier.

To investigate, Vita and his colleagues looked at the carbon footprints that result from meeting people’s fundamental needs. They considered the nine needs in the system developed by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef: affection, identity, protection, participation, subsistence, understanding, creation, freedom and leisure.

The researchers calculated the carbon footprint associated with each need by looking at the goods and services that people used to meet it. The team employed EXIOBASE 3, an open-access database containing information on economic activity and associated greenhouse gas emissions and resources for 200 goods in 44 countries. Finally, quality of life measures assessed how effective these carbon “investments” were.

Budget needs

Not all needs are equally polluting, the results showed. Meeting subsistence and protection needs blew nearly half the global carbon budget. Leisure, identity, creation and freedom took most of the other half. But understanding and participation were relatively “cheap”, responsible for less than 4% of the carbon emissions.

Comparing the carbon spend between different countries, Vita and his colleagues found that some needs quickly reach a saturation point in terms of carbon expenditure, whilst others are a bottomless pit.

“No matter how wealthy you are, you can only spend so much money on store-bought food or in heating your house,” explains Vita, who published the study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). “But there is virtually no limits to the money you can spend on holidays, entertainment, leisure, restaurants, education and so on, even if you are not getting more quality of life bang for your buck.”

Using indicators of quality of life such as those produced by the World Bank and the Human Development Report from the United Nations, Vita and colleagues assessed how well people in each country they investigated felt their needs were satisfied. The team compared this with how much carbon people “spent” on each need.

On average, the results showed that meeting all a person’s physical needs — affordable housing, good health, clean water and so on — required carbon emissions of between 1 and 3 tonnes of carbon per person per year. However, countries like the US and Australia blow around 6–8 tonnes per person per year to meet these same needs, whilst low income nations averaged closer to 1 tonne per person.

For many of the objective measures, such as electricity access or child survival, it was clear that there was a threshold above which more consumption didn’t bring greater satisfaction. It is these areas where Vita and his colleagues believe there are most gains to be made; where carbon emissions can be cut without negatively affecting people’s health and well-being.


Countries such as Denmark already lead the way on this front – Danish people have two-thirds the leisure footprint of citizens of the Czech Republic, but similar levels of satisfaction.

“Denmark has people-centred city design, people-centred public spaces, subsidies for sport, good food, accessible cultural events, shorter working days and decent holidays,” says Vita. “None of this requires more carbon. Similarly, countries including Bhutan and some Latin American nations focus on ‘living well’, where helping people to flourish is the driving concern, rather than economic growth.”

To achieve this change to a low-carbon society, the human-needs centred view needs to permeate institutions, businesses, households and individuals, Vita and his colleagues conclude.

“The challenge is to build societies where our activities are more holistic, enabling us to balance achievement, relaxation, work, play, romance, responsibility and freedom, without each of these pursuits being mutually exclusive,” says Vita.

The researchers believe there are interesting options to explore for this transition, including supporting sustainability-oriented grassroots initiatives, deploying universal basic income, reducing the work-week, designing cities for people and editing out polluting choices such as fossil fuel energy, driving, throw-away electronics, plastics and eating meat and processed food.

For wealthy countries this change is easier because they have already invested in housing and infrastructure to meet many basic needs. But there is an opportunity for emerging countries to learn from wealthy nations’ mistakes.

“Emerging countries have a golden opportunity to leapfrog directly to a more sustainable version of development,” says Vita. The question is, can the world transition to a ‘human needs’ economy in time?

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