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Can we balance our carbon budget by using less stuff?

Or does “dematerialization” simply swap stubborn technological problems for even more intractable social ones?
September 22, 2022

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Many proposed climate solutions are impressively (perhaps even impossibly) high-tech. But until the world perfects carbon sequestration, nuclear fusion, or solar geoengineering, some researchers are promoting a simpler idea—that we scale back the size of our homes, our cars, and our consumer appetites. “Dematerialization” holds the promise of significant avoided carbon emissions—up to 75 gigatons by 2050 according to a recent paper—by transitioning to smaller, lighter, less resource-intensive production. It’s a great idea but there’s a large gap between building smaller cars, and people actually wanting or buying them. Here we look at the compelling arguments on either side of that gap.

• • •

The World Is Ready to Downsize 


1.  We can build more with less. It’s an easily grasped concept. Put less steel into cars and less concrete into houses, and their carbon footprints will shrink accordingly. And the benefits quickly scale up. A team of researchers led by Stefan Pauliuk at the University of Freiburg recently calculated that constructing lighter and smaller products, combined with more intense material use and some behavioral shifts, could cut emissions from home construction and transportation by between one and two thirds.

2.  An economy of sharing doesn’t need world-changing tech. What makes dematerialization stand out from other climate strategies, writes Pauliuk at Carbon Brief, is that “the technologies are all in place and we could begin making the gains identified by our research almost at once.” Dematerialization encompasses a basket of mutually-advantageous strategies. For vehicles, it includes ride- and car-sharing services, which in turn mean vehicles can be built smaller for specific journeys, rather than the all-purpose SUVs favored today.

3.  Our future lies beyond peak stuff. Andy McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, wrote a book in praise of dematerialization in 2019, called More From Less. He points out that as countries industrialize they use a lot of resources, but then rapidly become more efficient. The US had its peak use of timber and paper as far back as 1990.  “I don’t think humanity is at peak stuff yet because there are too many low-income countries that are rapidly growing, rapidly becoming more prosperous,” he told the Harvard Business Review, “But globally we probably hit peak paper in about 2013. So, total human use of paper is finally going down.”

world's material footprint
Source: Lenzen M et al. Implementing the material footprint to measure progress towards Sustainable Development Goals 8 and 12. Nature Sustainability, 2021.

• • •

Not Everyone Agrees


1.  The more we save, the more we use. Noted historian Vaclav Smil believes that dematerialization is subject to the famous Jevon’s Paradox – where efficiency gains in products and processes ultimately make them cheaper and more attractive, boosting overall use. He observed that modern drinks cans use 37% less aluminum than they did decades ago—but that growing sales boosted total aluminum use by over a third. In 2017, a group of MIT researchers examined 57 cases of supposed dematerialization and concluded that “there is no dematerialization occurring even for cases of information technology with rapid technical progress.”

2.  Services won’t save us. Nor will the arrival of digital sharing services, and a move away from production necessarily help, found Blair Fix, an economist at York University, Canada. In a 2019 paper, he found no evidence that shifting economies from the production of goods to the provision of services leads to carbon dematerialization. “Instead, a larger service sector is associated with greater use of fossil fuels and greater carbon emissions per person,” he wrote. “This suggests that ‘dematerialization through services’ is not a valid sustainability policy.”

3.  Circular economies aren’t snowballing . . .yet. What if instead of focusing on new products, sustainability efforts instead concentrate on fully utilizing the stuff we’ve already made? The concept of a circular economy goes far beyond recycling, to envisage products that are designed to be repaired, reused, repurposed or dismantled when they reach the end of their (first) useful lives. This can vastly reduce their total energy usage – and save the global economy a trillion dollars annually, according to some estimates. But this long-awaited transition remains elusive, and faces similarly powerful social and cultural barriers to dematerialization efforts.  

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On


1.  SUVs and living room. Dematerialization will only gain traction when people want – and are willing to pay for—smaller, more sustainable products. Instead, average house sizes in many economies have increased: by 150% since 1980 in the US, and by even more in China over a similar period. Meanwhile, today’s chunkier cars are 20 to 30% bigger than similar models a generation ago. Will these trends continue as climate change and energy prices bite?

2.  A supply side crunch. Dematerialization could arrive from the supply side, rather than consumers demanding it. Shortages of processing chips and raw materials for batteries, and rising energy costs, could shift car design towards smaller, more affordable models, while fuel, material, and labor inflation could make mega-mansions similarly unattractive. 

3.  Regulatory action. Some think the first step to having people want less stuff is to regulate advertising. In London, junk food adverts have been banned from the tube network since 2019, avoiding an estimated 100,000 cases of obesity. Climate activists are now calling for similar restrictions on the marketing of high-carbon products.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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