Homelessness: The New Low-Carbon Lifestyle?

Homelessness: The New Low-Carbon Lifestyle?

Reason Online, May 1, 2008

A nifty new study by some Massachusetts Institute of Technology students finds that even the average American homeless person uses about double the amount of greenhouse gas emitting energy than is the world average. Below are some of their conclusions:

…none of the life styles studied here ever resulted in an energy requirement below 120GJ (in 1997). This includes the life style of a five year old child, a homeless person and a Buddhist monk. While 120GJ is about one third the American average in 1997 (350GJ) [gigajoules], it is almost double the global average energy use in that year (64 GJ).

Furthermore, such a level, we believe, is not obtainable for the average American on a voluntary basis. Which brings us to our second point … the magnitude of possible reductions in energy use for people in the United States by voluntary changes in spending patterns appears limited…

When we explored large but tolerable changes in a given life style in the middle range of expenditures i.e., $30k, we found that only relatively small improvements were possible, on the order of 30%….

…many people don’t want to make these changes. A detailed look at several middle income life styles found that a 50% reduction in energy use would require dramatic changes which we believe would be unacceptable to most people. Of course, what is acceptable or not, is debatable,….

Whole MIT study here.

Addendum: For more analysis along these lines see AEI scholar Steven Hayward’s recent Wall Street Journal op/ed on “The Real Cost of Tackling Climate Change.” One excerpt:

Begin with the current inventory of carbon dioxide emissions – CO2 being the principal greenhouse gas generated almost entirely by energy use. According to the Department of Energy’s most recent data on greenhouse gas emissions, in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, or just under 20 tons per capita. An 80% reduction in these emissions from 1990 levels means that the U.S. cannot emit more than about one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

Were man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country ever that low? The answer is probably yes – from historical energy data it is possible to estimate that the U.S. last emitted one billion metric tons around 1910. But in 1910, the U.S. had 92 million people, and per capita income, in current dollars, was about $6,000.

Whole op/ed here.

And lest anyone think that I’m saying that these levels of carbon emissions can’t be technologically achieved, I’m not. However, I do think that we need to clearly see what is at stake not only for the climate but also for human economic well-being.

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