Concordia researchers present surprising findings on what constitutes a ‘green’ industry
A new study is challenging us to rethink how we work, versus how we live, in terms of sustainability.
“It is a commonly held belief that we can grow our economy without increasing environmental impacts significantly if we just emphasize the ‘clean’ or ‘green’ parts more than ‘dirty’ ones,” says Daniel Horen Greenford (MSc 16), a PhD candidate in Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.
Horen Greenford’s research was supervised by Damon Matthews, professor and Concordia Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability, at the Matthews Climate Lab. Horen Greenford took a broad look at industries we typically view as having less environmental impact — say, software — versus those associated with pollution, such as car manufacturing.
“Conventional views regarding these industries are true considering the impacts caused directly by the industrial activities themselves. However, this perspective is too narrow to answer the question, ‘Will shifting economic activity and employment to services reduce environmental burdens?’” he says.
“This doesn’t account for the impacts attributable to household consumption by people employed in these ostensibly low-impact industries.”
Horen Greenford and his colleague, Tim Crownshaw, realized early on that a holistic perspective would be needed to account for the cascading effects of “tertiarization,” the technical term for an economic transition from extractive and heavy industry to more services.
Consumption correlates income
“Our hypothesis was that industries with high wages but low onsite impacts would have considerably higher impacts when you accounted for the household consumption of their employees. Likewise, we expected industries with high direct impacts but relatively lower wages to have much lower impacts when adopting this perspective,” Horen Greenford explains.
He adds that people’s consumption correlates more closely to their income than anything else. “We already have observed that people consume nearly proportional to how wealthy they are, while self-professed values, like being ‘green’ actually bear little influence on their consumption and attendant environmental impacts.”
Earlier studies, such as by Oxfam International, highlighted how income and emissions inequality mirror each other. They found that the consumption of the world’s wealthiest 10 per cent of people account for 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and the top one per cent account for an even more disproportionate share.
Canada has roughly 350,000 of the world’s one per cent of top emitters, and places fifth in terms of per capita emissions of the top one per cent.
“These people, on average, earn over $420,000 per year and emit over 200 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, about 10 times that of the average Canadian, and 20 to 30 times that of the poorest ones,” Horen Greenford notes.
Examining net environmental impact
Matthews, who saw Horen Greenford present his initial research with colleague Crownshaw a few years ago, immediately recognized the potential for an important paper.
“This is a bit of a new angle in our lab, though it does relate to how we understand different actors in society to be responsible for climate and other environmental damages,” he says.
The resulting article was published in Environmental Research Letters in June.
“Previously, we have looked at questions related to how different countries are responsible for climate changes, and the conclusion has always been that richer countries have had a disproportionately high impact on emissions and climate change,” Matthews says.
“In a sense, what our current paper is showing is that ‘richer’ economic sectors have a similarly high environmental impact. To understand the full impact of these sectors, you have to include the wealth of the labour force in the calculation.”
What you can do
So how can people lower their environmental impact? Horen Greenford says the time to act is now, but that personal choices fall short of the collective action needed.
“To be clear, the individual, if vigilant, can do a lot to lower their personal impact. But, ultimately, the sum of individual consumer choices will likely not reduce impacts enough to avoid ecological and climate catastrophe,” he says.
Horen Greenford suggests people take grassroots action, like joining up with likeminded people in groups looking for solutions to the climate crisis or raising awareness of the issue. Small civic gestures like writing your Member of Parliament is a good place to start as well.
“There are many ways to get involved, and everyone privileged enough to have time to think about it shouldn’t sit around feeling guilty, ashamed, scared or alone,” he says. “No individual is to blame, and no single person has the means to take this on alone. It’s important to not get bogged down in individualism.”
“If you’re willing to examine the situation with a sober mind, I’d say we have a pretty good grasp of the problem and its solutions. Getting active is the only way forward. There’s always hope, and even if we don’t fix everything, the more we do, the more lives can be spared from unconscionable suffering.”
Read the cited paper: “Shifting economic activity to services has limited potential to reduce global environmental impacts due to the household consumption of labour.”