Author: Dieting is a terrible metaphor for reducing emissions

Ahead of the U.N. climate conference in Paris later this year, there will be a lot of talk about how nations should apportion the burden of reducing carbon emissions. The richer, more industrialized nations have a lot of ideas about what poorer, still-developing nations should do to grow their economies without polluting the atmosphere too much.

Invariably, we might hear the term “carbon diet” come up, with its emphasis on personal sacrifice and willpower.

It’s a counterproductive metaphor, writes Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.

In a post for Slate, as part of its “Future Tense” initiative, Margonelli writes that the “dieting” analogy is unfair to those developing countries, particularly when the richer ones are dictating the terms:

Most of the world does not need a carbon diet. Three-quarters of the global population uses just 10 percent of the world’s energy, 1 billion people lack access to electricity, and 3 billion cook their food over dung, wood, and charcoal, leading to millions of early deaths. These people are energy starved—and they need a feast, not a diet. People in Angola, Bangladesh, and Cameroon, for example, use about 250 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, while people in the U.S. use 12,246.

She goes on to argue that people in developing countries deserve the chance at economic prosperity, so rich nations should promote innovations to serve the surging energy needs in a cleaner way.

For example:

Consider air conditioning. The world uses a trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity for AC right now, and with urbanization, greater wealth, and warming, it’s projected that amount will increase tenfold by 2050, far outpacing zero-carbon electricity generation. The issue is not whether people in developing countries “should” have air conditioning—what virtue is there in dying in your apartment during a heat wave? It’s how to get it to them. AC is a crucial part of building the knowledge economy employment that will eventually bring down carbon emissions because it increases the productivity of people and computers. Without AC there would be no grand economies in Hong Kong, Atlanta, or Bangalore.

The main reason the “diet” metaphor fails is that it suggests that the world’s problems can be solved by individual willpower.

The real issue with the carbon diet is that it suggests that we can deal with climate change as easily as we might switch to gluten-free pasta and beer, via willpower and careful substitution, when what we’ll really need is some kind of revolution in our thinking and technology.

On top of all that, most diets don’t work in the long term anyway. Which some people, sadly, are about to find out, a few weeks into their well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions.

(Photo: Yao ethnic minority women cook dinner on a smoke-spewing stove in Longji, China, in 2010. Credit: CHEN WS, for