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It’s not easy to keep track of the complex ways in which our everyday choices have an impact on a global scale. But as the world’s population surpasses 7 billion, each of our actions—positive or negative—gets multiplied. Read on to learn about five global trends from our latest publication, that show that our consumption choices affect more than ourselves—they affect the environment and the lives and livelihoods of millions.
- WE ARE PRODUCING 25 TIMES MORE MEAT TODAY THAN IN 1800.
Since 1800, the rate of meat production has outpaced human population growth by a factor of over three. In 2013, we produced an estimated 308.5 million tons of meat, more than ever before in a single year. That year, people worldwide ate an average of nearly 43 kilograms of meat each.
Who’s driving the trend? Asia leads the world in meat production, generating close to 43 percent of the 2013 global output. Europe, North America, and South America follow far behind. People in industrial countries continue to eat much larger quantities (76 kilograms per person in 2013) than those in developing nations (34 kilos per person).
What does this trend mean? The livestock sector uses industrial methods that consume large quantities of water, feed, grazing land, synthetic fertilizers, and antibiotics. Beef is by far the most intensive of meats, requiring more than 15,000 liters of water per kilogram of meat produced. Beef production also uses three fifths of global farmland despite its yield of less than 5 percent of the world’s protein and less than 2 percent of its calories.
What can be done? Supporting the switch of feed from grains to grass or other plants (to reduce direct competition with crops that otherwise could be used directly as food); using natural instead of synthetic fertilizers; and ending factory-style livestock operations could reduce environmental and health impacts. Dietary choices, such as eating less meat or choosing less resource-intensive meats, also make a difference.
2. DESPITE HAVING ACCESS TO RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGIES, WE ARE CONSUMING MORE COAL THAN EVER BEFORE.
Since 1950, the amount of coal consumed worldwide has nearly quadrupled (from just over 1 billion tons of oil equivalent to 3.8 billion tons in 2013). Because of strong demand and low prices, the coal supply also is getting “dirtier.” That means that the coal we’re paying for has a lower energy content than before, resulting in more coal being burned (and more pollution generated) for the same amount of heat.
Who’s driving the trend? The Asia-Pacific region accounted for 70 percent of global coal consumption in 2013, although the country is quickly diversifying its energy sources through solar technologies and natural gas. In the United States, coal consumption has been decreasing, despite the continued growth in demand for electricity, in large part due to the switch to domestic shale gas. In the European Union, coal consumption has been decreasing since 1990, thanks to reduced energy intensity and growing reliance on renewables.
What does this trend mean? Coal is the dirtiest energy source we use today. Without curbing consumption and related emissions, we likely will fail to keep global warming below the 2 degree Celsius threshold.
What can be done? Supporting meaningful, binding multilateral agreements on climate change would help stop the rise of coal. Decreasing our energy intensity and promoting lower costs for renewables would further reduce coal’s share within global energy production.
3. THERE ARE NOW OVER 1 BILLION AUTOMOBILES ON THE PLANET.
The world’s fleet of light-duty vehicles (such as passenger cars and light trucks) has grown so much that there is now one car for every seven people on the planet. Of these, only about 400,000 were electric vehicles at the start of 2014—or only 1 out of every 2,500 cars.
Who’s driving the trend? The United States and Japan have the world’s largest vehicle fleets. China, now in third place, skyrocketed the size of its fleet over the last decade, growing over 10-fold from 2000 (3.8 million) to 2011 (43.2 million). Most electric cars are in the United States (144,000), Japan (68,000), and China (45,000).
What does this trend mean? Today’s light-duty vehicles consume on average 7.2 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers and contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
What can be done? Higher fuel efficiency is needed to limit automobiles’ contribution to environmental problems. Alternative vehicles—such as hybrids and electric cars—help reduce local air pollution, but will only make a difference with regard to greenhouse gas emissions if the electricity they use is produced with renewable energy.
4. MILLIONS OF TONS OF PLASTICS STILL MAKE THEIR WAY TO LANDFILLS AND OCEANS EACH YEAR.
Who’s driving the trend? Western Europeans and North Americans consume the most plastic per person, using 100 kilograms of plastic per person each year. Asia currently uses just 20 kilograms per person, but this figure is expected to grow. In Europe, about a quarter of plastic was recycled and a third was burned for energy in 2012. In the United States, only 9 percent of plastic was recycled in 2012.
What does this trend mean? When plastic is not recycled, it is often sent to a landfill where its resources are wasted, it takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Plastic in oceans can entangle seabirds, whales, and dolphins or get transferred up the food chain as small particles get ingested, carrying chemical pollutants from prey to predator. Some toxic additives in plastic products—such as colorings, flame retardants, and plasticizers—have been linked to health issues.
What can be done? Along with reducing unnecessary plastics consumption, finding more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, and improving product and packaging design to use less plastic, many challenges associated with plastic could be addressed by improving management of the material across its life cycle. Governments, companies, and consumers can work together to encourage recycling.
5. WHILE GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS ARE TOUTED AS A MEANS TO ALLEVIATE HUNGER, THEIR DEMAND IS DRIVEN BY ANIMAL FEED AND OIL—NOT BY FOOD CONSUMED DIRECTLY BY PEOPLE.
Since they were first commercialized in the early 1990s, genetically modified (GM) crops have reached a global plantation area of 181 million hectares (2014). The most commonly planted GM crops were soybeans (used for animal feed and oil), maize (used for animal feed), cotton, and canola (used for oil).
Who’s driving the trend? North America and South America accounted for 87 percent of the global GM plantation area in 2014. A small handful of companies that develop and market GM crops have a near-monopoly on the US$15.7 billion industry (as of 2014).
What does this trend mean? While GM crops often result in saved time and effort in farming, they also can result in loss of land and livelihoods when less resourceful and less protected farmers are taken over by those with more assets. Growing more crops for animal feed is driving numerous environmental problems, from pollution to deforestation. Finally, crops that are modified to be herbicide-tolerant may be losing their advantage as herbicide resistance develops in weeds.
What can be done? In the next 5–10 years, GM crops likely will continue to expand, as 71 new GM strains have undergone field trials. Rigorous regulatory frameworks based on case-by-case assessments will be needed to protect farmers and the environment.
As consumers, we influence the landscapes and lives of those who live near the extraction, manufacturing, disposal, and other impacts of the products we use every day. Once we see ourselves as part of the larger puzzle, we are better able to choose what we buy, how we eat, and for whom we cast our ballot.