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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Today, the newly formed Department of Enertgy and Climate Change published final greenhouse gas emission figures for 2007. According to DECC, emissions had fallen by 1.7 per cent below 2006 figures. Great. Right?

Well it would be if the very foundations of our emissions monitoring weren’t based on voodoo accounting that ‘carbon launder’ the emissions from economies like the UK and the USA.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emissions monitoring guidelines, wealthier nations systematically underestimate their carbon emissions, while poorer countries systematically overestimate their emissions. This is because the UNFCCC requires emissions to be reported from a production-based perspective. In other words, only emissions associated with domestic emissions and exports are counted, while those associated with imports are washed from the national accounts. Because this method does not take into account ’embodied carbon’ of imports; the consumer of the product takes no responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production.

The UK’s consumption levels have risen steadily. And, as our major retailers scour the world for the cheapest production costs, the emissions that we are actually responsible for, have not only risen in line with our additional consumption – our consumption is proportionally more carbon intensive. This is because how much carbon that is in the energy mix (carbon intensity of energy) tends to be lower in developed nations and higher in developing nations. For example, the carbon intensity of energy in India is 20 per cent higher than the UK. This means a policy decision to monitor emissions based on production is more likely to result in an increase in emissions rather than a decrease – as production is driven up in nations with an energy mix that is more dependent on fossil fuels.

Today, if everyone consumed as much as the average UK citizen, we would need more than three planets like Earth to support us. In order to live within our overall environmental means, and to enable all of the world’s population to meet their basic needs, the UK will have to dramatically reduce the burden our high-consuming lifestyles place on the ecosystem. In effect – we have to take steps to reduce our ‘ecological debt’ – the burden our high-consuming lifestyles have placed, and continue to place on the rest of the planet.

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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

guardian-logo2“We must shop till we drop to prop-up the economy.” The theory seems to follow the logic of clinical inoculations – take a little bit of the disease (a debt-fuelled financial crisis) and inject it into the patient to immunise against the full infection (economic depression). Then cross your fingers and hope.

This is flawed. From an economic perspective, generalised spending on mostly imported goods is a highly inefficient way to reflate the UK economy. Most of the spending benefits just leak away. It will do little to combat what Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, called an “existential threat to the planet”, managing to conjure the curious image of chainsaw wielding French philosophers converging on a rainforest. Exhorting a rebirth of binge consumerism on the high street may be less exotic, but it is equally destructive.

Economic activity is not an end in itself. It is a means to ensure relatively long and satisfied lives. So, we should ask, how fit for purpose is conspicuous consumption in achieving that goal? On this, the literature is quite conclusive: consumerism turns out to be the crack cocaine of human wellbeing. It delivers a short-term high that quickly fades.

There are much better, proven ways to keep our spirits high in the slide towards economic depression. They include being physically active, learning a new skill or developing an old one, regularly connecting with people in community groups, with friends or family, actively taking notice of the world around you, in other words, being mindful, and finally, giving – best of all if it’s your time, help or something you’ve made yourself.

The face of doom?Last year the UK imported around 66,000 tonnes of Christmas decorations from China. One of the must-have presents in 2007 was the Nintendo Wii games console. Yet a single one left on stand-by and used only modestly would generate more greenhouse gases annually than a whole person in some African countries. Another popular present was the digital photo frame, but if only one in 25 UK households bought one, it would increase annual CO2 emissions by 11,000 tonnes. One of this year’s must-have toys is likely to be the life-sized robotic golden retriever dog marketed as “Biscuit, My Lovin’ Pup“. I hate to think what size carbon pile a Biscuit will leave on our atmospheric carpet.

But with 96 months to go, at a conservative estimate, before the world enters a new, potentially uncontrollable phase of global warming, there are glimmers of movement on some political and business Christmas trees.

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Bookmark and ShareSam Thompson is a researcher and a consultant at nef‘s centre for well-being.

With timing so precipitous as to border on the comic, Chancellor Alistair Darling chose to announce a cut in VAT in the same week as Buy Nothing Day, today’s annual jamboree of anti-consumerism that urges us to forsake all consumer spending for 24 hours. Suggested activities on the BND website include temper tantrums – “Sit on the floor in any shop with a friend and chuck a mental. Shout things like ‘I don’t want anything anymore!” – and zombie shopping excursions of like-minded individuals dressed in ghoulish garb and “shuffling from shop to shop chanting BUY, BUY – BRANDS, BRANDS!” All good fun, but as anyone familiar with Oxford Street on a normal Saturday will know hardly an effective way to grab attention. The protesters will blend in seamlessly.Bliss!

But whatever your view of BND, you might still find it a little odd that our Government is somehow trying to elide consumerism and civic duty, two things that are – or should be – about as far apart on the individual-society spectrum as it’s possible to get. Whilst not, perhaps, as banally distasteful as George W Bush’s exhortation to Americans to respond to 9/11 by going shopping, there is something discomforting about the Government’s plea. For as unemployment rises, property prices plummet and millions live in fear of their next credit card bill, this should be a moment to step back and reassess whether the way we consume has taken us nearer to, or further from, the kinds of lives we really want.

For years, we’ve lived with a poisonous combination of messages: on the one hand, constant bombardment from advertisers intent on telling us how hollow our lives are without magical Product X and, on the other, staggeringly easy access to credit with which to acquire Product X on the never-never. There are plenty of reasons to worry about this. Perhaps the most obvious is the indisputable link between Western levels of consumption and unsustainable environmental pressure. We can’t expect to keep living as we have been doing and stave off irreversible climate change, let alone repair the damage to ecosystem services and biodiversity caused by our profligacy and attain some measure of global social justice.

There are significant downsides at the personal level too. For instance, recent research from the renowned Institute of Psychiatry in London shows that personal debt “mediates” the relationship between poor economic circumstances and mental health difficulties. In other words, the further up to your neck you are in debt, the higher your chances of developing clinically significant anxiety and depression, largely irrespective of how much you earn. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. The stress of working just to keep up repayments and the fear of defaulting are constant and gnawing, and that’s without having to deal with the feelings of shame and inadequacy if things really go wrong. There will be plenty of former bankers and traders in serious emotional distress at present, and that is not something anyone should be celebrating.

There is also a more subtle, but no less damaging aspect to all this focus on personal consumption. People who are strongly motivated by the idea of getting rich and famous are what psychologists (despairingly) and marketeers (delightedly) refer to as “materialistic”. The scientific evidence for negative impacts from materialism is pretty overwhelming; they range from poorer personal relationships through fewer good moods and lower self-esteem to increased prevalence of psychological symptoms. Ironically, given the consumption-as-moral-imperative line implicit in the VAT cut, materialistic people have been shown to be generally more selfish and less inclined to help others, even when there it little personal cost involved. Fascinatingly, in one study, the extent of individuals’ materialistic outlook was shown to be positively correlated with their ecological footprints.

If Western-style consumerism, with its attendant values and attitudes, aren’t making us happy, what might do? Possible answers are provided by nef’s mental health equivalent of “five fruit and veg a day”, which we distilled from the evidence on improving well-being and warding-off mental health difficulties. What we came up with was a list of simple, everyday activities, arranged around five core concepts: Connect… Be active… Take notice… Keep learning… Give…

There is a reason that none of these suggestions involve consuming more or striving to get richer, and it has nothing to do with our ideological preferences. The reason is that they are based on the best available scientific evidence, and the best available evidence is unequivocal. The road to well-being is not paved with gold, but lined with friends and family, punctuated by opportunities for enjoyable detours, and is more about the journey than the destination. The happiest people in the world are those who spend their time engaging with life to the full, sharing experiences with friends and savouring the moment. The least happy are those who spend it slumped in front of the TV wishing they were Paris Hilton. And that, as they say, is a fact.

It is all enough to give us cause to reflect on what would really be the best way to spend this Buy Nothing Day Saturday. For those of us who are consuming way beyond our means (and the Earth’s) it is about time we started buying less every day. Do that, and the evidence shows our lives are likely to be richer as a result.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.