It’s Not Easy Being Green

Why a Greener World is Harder Than it Looks

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Concern about environmental issues has been on the rise in recent years. Between the grim assessments offered by the International Panel on Climate Change, or the debate about the “Green New Deal”, there is an increased awareness of the perils of climate change. This is reflected in polling, as Gallup has found approximately 2-out-of-3 people believe global warming is real, and almost half think global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. But with this growing interest in greening the economy, there remains questions on how this can be effectively achieved.

To begin with, it is worth discussing the “small steps” approach. For years, we have heard calls to reduce one’s carbon footprint through steps such as turning off lights, or avoiding using plastic bottles. While it is technically true that these efforts reduce emissions, it is by a vanishingly small amount. Take lightbulbs as an example. Imagine someone were able to reduce lightbulb usage by 1000 hours a year (this is approximately 3 hours per day). With a traditional 60-Watt incandescent bulb this would amount to a reduction of 42 kg of CO2 (source). Given that the average American is responsible for approximately 16,500 kg of per year (source), this reduction in lightbulb usage amounts to roughly 0.25% reduction in CO2 emissions. If the lightbulb were instead an energy-saving LED bulb the CO2 off-set would be a mere 7 kg, or about 0.04% of total annual emissions. It seems unlikely that the ice caps will be saved by these small-ball lifestyle changes.

Similarly, purchasing “green” options may not be sufficient. Consumers appear to genuinely want green products, but many green goods fail to live up to the claims that are advertised, and offer only limited benefits over conventional goods. This is a practice known as “greenwashing” where a company’s environmental claims are inaccurate. In 2009 TerraChoice surveyed environmentally friendly options of a variety of products, and found that over 95% had been greenwashed to some extent. A 2011 study on the drivers of greenwashing found that lax enforcement of Federal Trade Commission regulations may create a setting where violations are rarely prosecuted. Work should be done at the level of policy to ensure consumers are not being misled on environmental claims.

The issue of greenwashing overlaps with the role of the academy. If industry is offering inadequately “green” solutions, why doesn’t the research community develop truly green alternatives? While there have been decades of research on environmental engineering and green chemistry, there is concern that there has not been enough progress to meet the scale of the challenges that face humanity. Climate change is coming, and minor tweaks to construction practices and plastic usage will not avert the crisis. The academy has also been trapped in a battle with conservative politicians and interest groups over the seriousness of global warming. This never-ending debate has been a major obstacle for academics to get the necessary resources to complete the research needed to avert climate change.

While this picture may look depressing, hope does remain. The change in public opinion matters a great deal, as it will mean increased pressure on government and industry to develop real solutions. Is it too late? That is hard to tell, but at least we know that there is no time left to lose.

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