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Untangling the global impacts of UK consumption

By Maddie Harris

Global impacts

Our latest blog is from Maddie Harris, an Ecosystem Analyst in our Ecosystems Analysis Team. Maddie talks about the complexities involved in measuring the environmental impacts of UK consumption, and the trade-offs that need to be considered.

As I sit here, writing, an invisible web connects me to every corner of the world. The tea I sip is made from leaves grown in India. The desk I sit at uses Swedish timber. The apple I’m snacking on was imported from Spain. Many of these links I can only begin to guess at. Where were the metals in my laptop mined from? Was there palm oil in the shampoo I used this morning, hidden within the other ingredients? How many countries did my T-shirt pass through, as the cotton was grown, dyed and made into clothes? I can’t see this web, but the links are very real – potentially tying me to water stress in India, fertiliser pollution in Spain and biodiversity loss in Sweden. What else are my consumer choices responsible for in far-off countries that I may never visit? I simply don’t know.

When you scale this problem up to the consumption of an entire country, it becomes even more significant and complex. How on Earth can we begin to understand the consumption impacts of the UK as a whole? Well, JNCC has been exploring this problem, through a project funded by Defra and with partners at the University of York. Pulling together information from trade models, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), and scientific literature, we are helping to create a new frontier of information needed to answer questions about where the UK is impacting and through which commodities, in order to inform action.

But measuring impacts is only the start – one small part of a very big picture. To really make a difference and to enable society to make informed decisions about how to tackle these impacts, a whole variety of other factors will need to be studied and difficult decisions will need to be made. For example, if a farmer was to stop producing meat on rare British chalk grassland to protect its unique biodiversity, I’m sure we would all agree that from an environmental perspective this is a good thing. Until we think about where else the meat might be produced instead. Unless demand goes down, an equivalent amount will need to be produced elsewhere. How would we know this won’t happen on an equally rare habitat type, or somewhere with lower environmental standards? Understanding the trade-offs between different production systems both within the UK and abroad will be critical to be ensuring that effective land-management decisions are made.

Another consideration is the trade-off required around land-sparing versus land-sharing. If a farmer wanted to improve biodiversity without reducing output, is it better to produce more rapeseed oil in a smaller but intensively managed area, but leave some completely wild zones for wildlife to thrive in; or to aim to cover the whole farm in rapeseed oil but avoid using fertilisers and pesticides? If the second option were selected, the result might be a lower yield per hectare planted, but there is more scope for insects to live within the cropped area itself. Similarly, should a consumer worried about the palm oil in shampoo switch to a palm-oil-free alternative? Alternative ingredients are generally less efficient than palm oil in terms of how much is grown in a given area. But whilst palm oil takes up less space, the space it does take up is often on deforestation frontiers in biodiversity-rich areas. Alternatives therefore reduce the immediate pressure on deforestation, but if everyone made the switch, our total land-use footprint across the globe would increase significantly. This means we would need to expand into even more natural habitat overall to meet demand.

We also don’t really have a good understanding of how much we need to reduce our footprint by. For carbon, there are internationally agreed goals that we shouldn’t allow global warming to rise beyond 1.5°C, and an understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions that will take us to that point. For other impacts, the line is much more blurry. What is an acceptable amount of biodiversity loss, water stress, or deforestation? If we reduce agricultural expansion, what will that actually mean for biodiversity, a notoriously broad and geography-specific concept? How do we reach a similar level of agreement for, and mainstreaming of, other environmental impacts to focus action and highlight the problems?

Sustainable consumption is not something that can be solved overnight. It will need people to work together across every part of society, from individual consumers to inter-governmental agreements. At the end of the day, reducing overall demand will be key to any solution – there is simply not enough space on this planet for all 6 billion humans to consume as much as we currently do in the west. But alongside this, analysing new frontiers of data can help us to understand how to consume more efficiently and prevent unintended consequences from our decisions.

If you could see the impacts from your consumption, what choices would you make?

Find out more about our global impacts work.

Image credit: Apples © anncapictures (pixabay).

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