European consumption still highly unsustainable, despite efficiency gains

News Published 14 Jun 2012 Last modified 15 Jul 2016
3 min read
Photo: © Anthony Albright
Humanity’s growing appetite for bigger houses, overseas travel, food and consumer goods is the main cause of our most pressing environmental problems, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) which considers the links between the environment and consumption.

We can foresee multiple, converging environmental crises caused by our unsustainable consumption. Changing this will be very difficult – environmentally harmful patterns of consumption are deeply ingrained in our society - economically, politically, socially and technically.

EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade

Just three areas are estimated to be responsible for approximately three quarters of the environmental impacts from household consumption. These areas are eating and drinking; housing and infrastructure; and mobility, contributing 74 % of greenhouse gas emissions, 74 % of acidifying emissions, 72 % of tropospheric ozone precursor emissions and 70 % of the direct and indirect material input caused globally by private consumption in 2007 in the EU-27 Member States.

There are some positive trends –environmental impacts from European consumption are falling for three of the four environmental issues studied in the report. However, current levels of environmental damage are still unsustainable, and material resource use is still growing.

“We can foresee multiple, converging environmental crises caused by our unsustainable consumption,” EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said. “Changing this will be very difficult – environmentally harmful patterns of consumption are deeply ingrained in our society - economically, politically, socially and technically. But it is not impossible. We need policies that make sustainable choices easy, affordable and attractive, business models that drive forward sustainable consumption patterns, and people to make the sustainable choices.”

Goods and services consumed in Europe are increasingly imported. Since the majority of environmental impacts from consumption are created during the production of the goods, a considerable share of the environmental pressures is actually felt outside of Europe, according to the report ‘Consumption and the environment’. This is a newly updated chapter of the EEA’s State and Outlook of the Environment Report (SOER) 2010 that is launched today at the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption and Production in Rio de Janeiro.

Climate change, eutrophication, air pollution and acidification are all driven by personal consumption, the report says. Increasing population is also influencing these issues, but a bigger driver is the ‘consumer class’ around the world which is predicted to grow to 1.2 billion people by 2030.

Efficiency gains partly offset by growing consumption

Efficiency measures have successfully reduced key emissions to air caused by household consumption in the EU-27 between 2000 and 2007. However, growing consumption and changes in consumption patterns have partly offset these gains. In addition, more efficient use of materials has even been outpaced by growth in consumption. So improving efficiency alone is not enough, the report says – in the past more efficient use of resources has often resulted in the ‘rebound effect,’ where financial savings from increased efficiency are used for additional consumption of goods and services – so the environmental benefit is negated.

For example, energy efficiency of housing has improved since 2000, but this trend has been largely offset by an increase in housing space per person. Transport impacts are also getting worse. While the fuel efficiency of the average car has been improved continuously in recent decades, the improvements have been more than offset by growing demand for travel by private car in the EU.

Changing the economics of consumption

Current consumption patterns damage the environment and over-use resources, in part because the environmental cost of producing goods and services is not fully reflected in their price. This means that many goods are relatively cheap even though they cause major harm to the environment, ecosystems or human health.

Many economic systems also create perverse incentives to consume more. Some governments subsidise new purchases or environmentally damaging goods such as fossil fuels, prioritising short-term economic gain, thereby accelerating environmental damage.

Environmental Tax Reform (ETR) is one area which could improve the relationship between consumption and the environment. Proponents of ETR argue that it is important to tax environmentally-damaging activities. The taxes could then be redistributed to people via reductions in income tax. Shifting tax from labour to emissions and resource use in this way may reduce unsustainable consumption.

Nonetheless, it will be impossible to substantially reduce environmental impacts of consumption without a change in culture, the report says. Many millions of people around the world currently aspire to drive a car or own the latest electronic device. The expanding nature of consumption means that these products cannot simply be ‘greened’ with technical improvements, instead culture needs to make a larger shift.

Global policies towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns are currently being negotiated in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference is considering the adoption of a global framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production.


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