Tell me your income and I will tell you your carbon footprint: in US and China

Since last summer I have been writing about the relentless upward creep of household consumption (and carbon footprint) with growing household income. The question that preoccupies me is this: can income and private consumption be decoupled? In my view this is one of the most important challenges for the SCORAI community: the researchers, activists and policy makers. In the August and September posts about the U.S. I saw merit in creating amenities-rich affordable housing communities in low-impact cities such as New York by way of co-operative ownership model. In the November and December posts I obsessed about re-framing the meaning of good life and being green in the post-soviet Europe, which in at least some cases seems intent on reproducing the Western model of social progress based on consumerism. And now I raise the urgency of my question by looking at China, with its 1.3 billion inhabitants aspiring to good life, and with an official government policy to increase domestic consumption.


A few days ago, Dominik Wiedenhofer sent to the SCORAI listserv an article he co-authored ( which shows carbon footprint of Chinese citizens as a function of income. Apart from having the absolute scale on the vertical axis about 6-7 times smaller than in the US (as well as differences in data collection and income metrics) this graph looks eerily similar to the US graph, published by Ummel in 2014 ( In the US the top 10% earners contribute 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from households while the bottom 40% of earners contribute 20% of emissions. In China, the top 10.6% of earners emits 19% of total while the bottom 47% emits 25% of total. The conclusion is rather straightforward: tell me your income or income category and I will tell you what your carbon footprint is (statistically speaking).


There are two ways to look at these two graphs. One is to assume that all socioeconomic classes aspire to emulate the lifestyles of those above them in the income ladder, as is largely the case in consumer society, and view the consumption treadmill among the emerging global middle classes as inevitable, with all its social and ecological consequences. I choose a different perspective. This is an opportunity to figure out how to decouple household income from consumption. And I do not mean the debunked myth of decoupling growth from energy consumption through technology. I mean social and cultural change. With regard to moderately affluent families whose basic needs are met for housing, mobility, food, social identity and other essential amenities for a dignified life what kind of policies, campaigns, incentive and infrastructures will channel their growing income to non-consumerist pursuits of good life.

There is a massive body of research literature, experience and tacit knowledge that can inform this type of inquiry. We just need to focus.

Sustainable lifestyles worth holding on to.


It is much harder to reduce consumption patterns that have already been established than to find ways to keep them from increasing. This is why I think that the growing middle class in the post-soviet Europe presents an opportunity to promote sustainable lifestyles. On the one hand, these are well educated people whose basic needs are met, including adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter and fuel as well as access to healthcare, education, recreation and other public services. On the other hand, under the heading of “catching up with the West” they are being relentlessly bombarded with the consumerism-based visions of well-being.

In my November 2016 blog entry I wrote about the drive toward consumerism in Poland and the US-type of suburban model of well-being. Today I am writing about an interesting initiative conducted in Hungary in which low impact living acquired a cachet and a fresh identity. The initiative in question, known as Kislabnyom, was a year-long campaign conducted by GreenDependent Institute among low and middle income large families, with a goal of changing energy use patterns by households through behavior change. The essence of the campaign was to work with entire families rather than individuals, and with communities. It consisted of interactive and highly participatory training sessions for groups of families, low stress competitions, shared celebrations and other community building activities. One family from each campaign was filmed for one of the national TV channels, and a series of articles on small footprint families was published in one of the main weekly women’s magazine.

By tradition as well as owing to modest incomes most of the participating families live a small impact lifestyles, e.g. grow their own fruits and vegetables, reuse bath water, organize clothes and toys exchanges, cook their own food, conserve energy, etc. In short, theirs are low impact lifestyles of fairly high quality. The striking thing about the project participants was that they did not define themselves as “green.” These households held the view that green living was for those financially better-off than themselves. In their eyes, they were too poor to be green.

And this is where the initiative was, almost inadvertently, intriguingly successful. It resulted in reframing the lifestyle of the participants as sustainable rather than financially wanting. It produced a sense of pride in their daily lives, created a positive attitude and sense of empowerment, and raised interest in and engagement with sustainability. As a result, the participants became actively involved in creating the message of sustainable lifestyle and enhancing sustainable practices in their lives.

The lesson I take from the Hungarian experience is that grass roots initiatives aimed at more sustainable lifestyles should pay more attention to the populations who are already living small impact lifestyles and yet do not identify them as such. Their lifestyles are not intentionally or ideologically low impact and they do not consider themselves “green”. By re-framing the meaning of these lifestyles, emphasizing their ecological positives, and by seeking non-materialistic potential opportunities for increasing well-being, real progress could be made in preventing millions of people around the world from adopting the consumerist lifestyles.

And this lesson extends to all relatively affluent countries and regions, not just the post-soviet societies.

Edina Vadovics // GreenDependent Institute