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COP: Protecting the Lifestyle of the Well-Off For the 28th Time

For COP to make progress, the agenda of both the rich nations and the ruling classes of the developing countries has to be cutting wasteful consumption.
Photo: Mike Marrah/Unsplash

Reports are that in 2023, there have been times when the global temperature has been higher than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. This level of warming has been flagged as causing irreversible change. Already at the current average annual temperature level of about 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the number of extreme weather events has dramatically increased, resulting in growing distress, especially for the poor.

COP28 needed to plan for reversal of average global temperature from its current levels. But this does not seem to be on the agenda. A mitigation fund with paltry contributions has been proposed. The steps being discussed and the urgency required to reverse the rising average temperatures are not visible.

The challenge today is not just global warming but the multi-faceted environmental pollution. Oceans and fresh water bodies are being severely polluted. There is impact on marine life and contaminants (like micro-plastics and chemicals) are entering human food chains. Heavy chemicals and elements are damaging various human organs with consequences for human health and leading to the proliferation of diseases like cancer.

Production, consumption and pollution

Energy is required for the production of goods and services, their distribution and finally for consumption. Different forms of energy are available like electricity, wind power, burning coal, gas and petroleum products. Some are more polluting than others. For instance, burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel pollutes more than wind power or electricity from solar panels. Solar panels directly convert the sun’s rays into electricity while wind and hydro-electricity come indirectly from solar energy. These sources directly produce little or no greenhouse gases. However, production and setting up of solar panels and wind turbines also results in pollution.

Fossil fuels are stored green matter over millions of years and their burning produces greenhouse gases. Since they are easily available, their consumption has risen dramatically over time and that is leading to a massive increase in greenhouse gases in air and global warming. So, one is talking of what is less polluting and which releases the least amount of greenhouse gases.

Currently there are two problems. First, most of the energy is being derived from the wrong kind of sources, which pollute more than others and produce more greenhouse gases. Second, consumption is on the rise, so more energy is required. Consumption is of all kind of goods and services. They have to be produced, transported, distributed, etc. – all of which requires energy.

Further, as production becomes more concentrated, there may be economies of scale but more transportation and distribution are required. It is visible in the long supply chains and distribution networks. So, in spite of greater efficiency due to use of more energy efficient methods of production and transportation, overall energy consumption has continued to increase.

Essential and luxury consumption

Production and distribution is related to consumption by humans for improvement in their welfare. A part of the output is for investment, to enable production to both continue and increase. Another part of consumption is in the form of public goods which are jointly consumed, like army, parks, sewage and public health. So, to address the problem of pollution, one needs to address private consumption, government consumption and investment.

Consumption may also be characterised as essential and inessential. Food, water, clothing and housing are essential for life. Agriculture and livestock rearing which produce food are blamed for much of release of greenhouse gases. Apart from curbing waste in production of food, nothing much can be done about it. Public services are required for a civilised existence of citizens, so here too one can try to provide these more efficiently but these are required.

What can be curbed is inessential and luxury consumption. This has become huge amongst the well-off, government bureaucracy and the corporate sector, and can be curtailed to reduce pollution. Unfortunately, consumption has become the yardstick of standard of living. Vacations, eating out, travel, throwing away usable things, discarding rather than repairing gadgets, etc., have become a part of the practice of the well-off.

Due to the demonstration effect from rich countries, the well-off in the developing world have copied wasteful consumption. The poor and the middle classes in the developing world try to emulate these consumption patterns. Advertising is used by producers to induce more consumption, not only among the well-off but among the less well-off and the poor. They are euphemistically defined as aspirational or those who want to consume more and can be induced to consume more in the future.

Consumerism has become ingrained in life. It stands for consumption for the sake of consumption. Tremendous amount of waste is generated in producing and throwing away things or in fancy packaging, luxury five star living, etc. The poor are not a part of such behaviour.

Skewed consumption pattern

So, who is consuming how much and therefore responsible for how much of the pollution?

The Delhi socio-economic survey of 2018 can be used to get the approximate consumption pattern. Translated to the all-India level, it suggests that 90% of Indian families spent less than Rs 10,000 per month. So, about 120 crore Indians consumed less than Rs 2,000 per month. This gives an annual consumption of less than Rs 28.8 lakh crore. 98% of the families consumed less than Rs 20,000 per month. Assuming an average of Rs 15,000 per month of family expenditure for those between the 90% and 98%, each individual in this bracket was consuming Rs 3,000 per month. Their consumption would be Rs 3.8 lakh crore. This 98% has little spare resources to waste or spend on luxury consumption.

Only 2% of the families in India were rich and consumed the maximum. In 2018-19, national income was about Rs 167 lakh crore. Of this about 58% was private consumption amounting to Rs 96.9 lakh crore. Subtracting the consumption of the 98%, the consumption of the top 2% turns out to be Rs 64.3 lakh crore or Rs 23.8 lakh per person. Their consumption was 66.36% of the total and they are the real polluters because they have the money to spend on luxury items and inessentials. The picture today will not be very different from that in 2018.

The poor in India are also recyclers of a lot of the waste produced by the well-off. So, their net environmental impact is smaller than implied by their consumption. The poor do cut corners and pollute but that is done for survival and not for luxury. Finally, the poor are also forced to produce cheaply for the developed world.

The consumption of the well-off requires a lot of imports of automobiles, electronic items, specialty items, etc. Even when these are produced in the country, a lot of their parts are imported. To balance trade, exports are required. India exports a lot of the low and intermediate technology products like, textiles, leather goods and toys where it faces competition from the other developing world nations. So prices have to be kept low (competitive). This is achieved by sacrificing environmental standards and paying workers low salaries. In other words, the developing world accepts a polluted environment for the sake of the developed world.

COP not discussing the real issue

The 28th Conference of Parties is taking place but the real step required, namely, cutting consumption globally, is not on the agenda. Use of cleaner energy sources will help but it will not be enough.

There is the free rider problem – each nation expects others to take the steps required. The rich nations are blaming India and China for being the big polluters now. The latter blame the rich nations for the historical accumulation of greenhouse gases and is asking them to pay for it and to make available new technologies to reduce production of greenhouse gases. The rich nations are not offering to lower their per capita consumption. They see this as a lowering the standard of living their people. The developing nations like India are not offering to pursue policies that would reduce the consumption of the well-off. They see this as a reduction of their growth rates.

Both the rich and the developing nations are protecting the interest of their corporations and their well-off whose growing consumption leads to higher profits. Both want to persist with growing consumption of their elite, corporate culture and wasteful governments. This shows where the real political power in the World lies – the slogan 1% against the 99% is apt. The cost of deliberate obfuscation falls on the marginalised – whether the poorer nations or the poor in each of the countries.


In brief, climate change and growing pollution are upon us and imposing heavy costs on all. Yet, the political will to take the drastic steps required is missing. The time for taking incremental steps is over. The fear that cutting consumption and production will reduce welfare for the elite and reduce employment is unfounded because these can be achieved by cutting social waste and inessential consumption which will enhance everyone’s well-being by reducing pollution. A study from the SA showed that in 1980, 50% of the production was a waste. For India, in 2006, 25% was a waste.

So, for COP to make progress, the agenda of both the rich nations and the ruling classes of the developing countries has to be cutting wasteful consumption.

Arun Kumar is the author of Understanding Black Economy and Black Money in India.

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