Energy & GHG

Apr 10, 2012

Are inner city residents bad for the environment?

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Ecological footprint for Sydney (source: ACF)

I’ve written before (e.g. here and here) about understanding the importance of selection bias before attributing significant behavioural influences to the physical environment. More often than not, it’s the characteristics of the people that explain more about their behaviour than the type of neighbourhood or housing they live in.

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s (ACF) well known Consumption Atlas illustrates this point well (report here). The ACF estimated the per capita environmental impacts of household consumption at the Statistical Local Area level by matching household expenditure patterns with an input-output analysis for various categories of goods and services (technical report here).

The research turned up some surprising results for the city centre and the inner city. There’re many reasons to suppose inner city populations would have a smaller negative impact on the environment than other Australians, especially compared to suburbanites living in large detached houses with two car garages.

After all, the residents of inner city Paddington, Northbridge and Fitzroy tend to occupy small apartments, town houses and terraces and have tiny gardens. They live in relatively walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods and have ready access to public transport. On average, they also have lower rates of car-ownership than middle and outer suburban residents.

Yet the ACF’s research shows inner city populations have the largest adverse impact on the environment – and by a considerable margin – of any group in the country. For example, per capita GHG emissions average 20-22 tonnes in metropolitan areas in Qld and 15-17 tonnes in rural areas. Yet in inner city Brisbane they average 28-32 tonnes per capita.

In NSW, the areas with the highest per capita ecological footprint are in the inner city, especially around Sydney Harbour (see exhibit). In Victoria, the highest per capita water consumption is in the inner city and inner suburbs – the biggest water wallys live in Prahran and on the edge of the CBD in Docklands and Southbank.

The fact is the green benefits bestowed by the physical characteristics of the inner city are nullified – the ACF actually says “overwhelmed” – by two key attributes of the population that chooses to live there.

The first attribute is wealth – inner city residents are richer on average than other Australians. Income is very strongly correlated with environmental impact. Wealthier people buy more “stuff” like food, furniture, electronics and clothes that has a high direct and indirect negative impact on the environment. They fly a lot more than others too, both for work and leisure.

While high income households spend more on high cost, low impact activities such as entertainment and other services, they also spend more on electricity and most other categories of goods. Some activities with high greenhouse impacts, such as air travel and construction and renovation, tend to be concentrated in high income groups.

The second attribute is household size – inner city residents live on average in smaller households, mostly of one and two persons. Their per capita environmental impact is consequently large because they don’t take advantage of economies of scale:

In larger households, people tend to share common living areas, which will lower the per-person heating and electricity bills. In addition, larger households can share items such as furniture and appliances, whereas a person living alone must own a full suite of such items. It is also reasonable to think that larger households are more likely to cook together, resulting in more efficient purchasing patterns and lower levels of food waste.

The higher education level of inner city households should – and probably does – give them a greater commitment to protecting the environment. But high human capital is surely one reason why they’re richer. And wealth results in more spending, more consumption, greater waste, and higher environmental impact. As the ACF notes: “far from enabling a sustainable lifestyle, increases in wealth appear to go hand-in-hand with greater environmental stress”.

So the poor environmental performance of inner city residents isn’t a consequence of physical characteristics like density. Rather, it’s explained by the characteristics of the people who choose to live there. Those who accept this conclusion but think other behaviours like obesity (or absence of obesity) are primarily the result of the physical environment rather than selection effects should ask themselves if they’re being….well, selective when it’s convenient.

It’s probably true that inner city residents would have an even larger negative environmental impact if they lived in outer suburban McMansions. However the ACF’s research indicates the locational increment would probably still be modest relative to the sorts of non-physical factors discussed above. I’ll return to the ACF’s report next time (see here) because it has a number of other interesting things to say.

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21 thoughts on “Are inner city residents bad for the environment?

  1. Dudley Horscroft

    It seems that all are confused. “Are inner city residents bad for the environment?” Some assumptions are obviously bad – that because a high rise is expensive and are more occupied by singles rather than families there is a higher resource cost per head. A high rise costs more to construct, but the resource usage for 210 dwellings – approx 315 people – in a 30 storey high rise is almost certainly far less than 210 dwellings on 10 ha greenfield. And then you have to add the roads, sewers, etc, etc to serve those greenfield developments. In cities it is found that people have fewer cars, and they use them less – what resident of Sydney would drive to work in Sydney unless it was absolutely essential?

    I would say that the view that inner city residents are generally wealthier than those of suburbs or exurbs may be right, but it is questionable that they fly more. The people who frequently fly are more likely to be wealthy enough to support a massive
    McMansion in the sticks and will keep their horses their on their hobby farms.

    The proposition that ‘surplus’ infrastructure in inner cities has been “all used up” is doubtful. When a comparable area supported 1000 residents and now supports 300 it follows that there is still surplus capacity on sewerage, drainage, though it is feasible that with the general rise in electricity use new power cables must be installed. With the internet and the massive increases in capacity, copper wires will support a lot, but fibreglass will support far more – the latter is preferred and being installed not because the former is insufficient but because the latter is more efficient. Much, if not all, new inner city infrastructure is because the original is worn out and needs replacing, not because population has increased.

    Shortage of road space – yes, but this is simply because governments here have never grasped the nettle of road pricing. Charge properly for roads, and congestion will nearly disappear. With this the fares on public transport will be relatively cheaper, even if substantially raised, so public transit, in cities at least, can be profitable. In addition, except in Melbourne governments got rid of good public – if a bit antiquated – transit systems and replaced high capacity trams by inefficient buses. Not a good move then, and one that should be reversed.

    I have just opened the “Report” and find:
    “Consider, for instance, the fact that 200 litres of water are used on average to produce a single 150g serve of meat in Australia. This means that more water might go into a single steak at dinner than an individual uses during an entire week of showers.”

    Logic and assumptions like this casts doubt on the quality of the assumptions and logic of the Report – remember that cows eat grass and grass uses rain that would otherwise flow into rivers and the sea and be wasted. I would consider the Report might be appropriately used in the dunny.

    Dudley: I don’t know that there’re many beef cows eating grass any more, more likely grain. This episode of America Revealed, currently showing in the US, is worth watching. AD

  2. Tom the first and best

    There are various measures that could be taken to increase household sizes.

    One would be to include owner-occupier housing in either the existing or a new added means test for the old age pension. This would encourage some people to free up their housing capital by combining together to form share houses.

    Another would be to encourage young people looking to by housing, but not yet with/not going to have children, to buy housing as share housing rather for individual housing.

  3. Krammer56

    Hugh, sorry about that, but this and other forums (inlcuding the media and political debate) are full of “inner is good & suburbs are bad” rhteoric, often based solely on the supposedly lower transport footprint of living in inner areas. For me, these views highlight that old saying that “for every complex problem there is a simple solution, and it is invariably wrong”. And planning cities in a world dealing with climate change, the spectre of peak oil, GFCs, etc is one very complex problem!

    Michael, as for commuting times, a Victorian Department of Transport research bulletin ( or a previous blog by Alan ( show that the extra (average) journey to work time (in Melbourne at least) is generally only 4-5 minutes longer for outer suburbs than the inner suburbs, presumably because the longer travel distances are offset by slower travel speeds by car or PT in inner areas and more walking and cycling. And as Alan notes in his blog, for the 90% who don’t live in inner Melbourne, average commutes (both time and distance) are pretty consistent.

  4. michael r james

    Hugh & Krammer56

    There is a perfect article in Good Weekend magazine by Fairfax journalist Lisa Pryor that relates to this (I cannot find it on their site and google only finds a pay version). It is about her own choices as a mother of two, to live in an inner-city apartment versus a house in the boondocks. She says: “The real story is about a generation of young families considering commuting times, debt levels, work hours and neighbourhood amenities and coming up with a different answer to those who have gone before.”

    “Choosing the city life paradoxically allows families to escape those things city life is most notorious for, such as long commutes in heavy traffic. On weekdays my movements take on the geographic range of a medieval peasant, travelling no further than my legs can take me for work, childcare, shopping and play.”

  5. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Krammer56, not only did you not do any sums, you ruined an otherwise thoughtful piece by closing with a attempted haymaker: “However, it does maybe highlight to smug, inner-city greenies, who think that they are saving the planet by living there, that there is much more to it than simply location!”
    Who said inner city residents were smug or think they’re saving the planet? Greenies or Greens voters nowhere near constitute the majority of inner city dwellers or any other location. This debate is about the other measurable parameters that affect the quality of life in the inner city.

  6. Krammer56

    Socrates, if you are relying on the work of work presented by Newman et al (“Assessing the costs of alternative development paths in Australian cities”) which purported to show that the overall cost of infrastructure for fringe development was something like three times those of inner development, you need to be very careful (both in relation to the asusmptions and the methodology).

    The analysis was based on providing only 1000 extra households. There is no doubt it is cheaper to add 1000 households in Melbourne via infill if spread around the city – that’s only one or two extra park users, school kids, public transport patrons, etc. in any one area. The problem is we need to add something like 300,000 households if we actually want to cater for the inevitable growth and minimise the spread of Melbourne. That will require the order of up to 130 new primary and secondary schools, 20% more road space or 100% more public transport “space”, 25% more ovals, etc., etc.

    And nobody really knows what it means for utilities and drainage – all that extra hard surfacing is going to need lots of expensive, and mainly empty, water tanks purely designed to stop flooding.

    Not only is all this stuff needed, the cost of providing it will be many times higher in established Melbourne. Of course, that is if it is even possible. Where is extra green space going to come from – tearing down houses??

    The costs of providing this infrastructure would be massive, and I suspect (without having done any sums) that the costs are much more even – if not the other way around.

    As for the travel components, part of the issue is that we are so fixated on CBD jobs (which as Alan has pointed out previously are only around 10-15% of the metropolitan totals) that we forget suburban jobs. Investing more and more on providing massive transport solutions to get a small share of people to work in the CBD makes little sense. Why aren’t we investing in getting jobs out of the centre? We have lots of spare capacity in our transport system for counter-peak travel!

    As for the ACF report, it certainly does appear that they have muddied the waters by making conclusions on housing location/type by including lifestyle elements in their analysis. However, it does maybe highlight to smug, inner-city greenies, who think that they are saving the planet by living there, that there is much more to it than simply location!

  7. Paul

    Well, empty-nesters are going to be living in one or two person households whether they’re in the inner city or not. As for young people living by themselves instead of sharing; yeah, I guess that could be true. But wouldn’t that imply that accomodation costs are lower than in the past? I’m pretty sure that rent is much higher than it used to be.

  8. Paul

    I think the “economies of scale” argument is unfair for inner city residents; the reason they live in one or two person households is because they don’t have children. Not having children is far better for the environment than having them.

    Paul: Interesting point, but is it right? The dominant demographic in the city centre is young people who haven’t had children yet. Where once young people used to share, many now live by themselves in one bedroom and studio apartments. Then there’re the empty nesters who’ve already had their children. AD

  9. Socrates


    Regarding the infrastructure issues I raised in #4 the studies I referred to included network modeling that included overall impacts. Outer suburban residents have more impacton infrastructure than inner ones. They drive over both outer and inner suburban roads to get to work etc. The same applies to public transport as the NW Sydney corridor demonstrates. Inner suburban residents might fly more, but their urban travel is far less.

  10. michael r james

    Actually here is their first conclusion at the end of the paper:

    [Firstly, any benefits from urbanisation, such as higher population densities in the
    inner cities leading to increased use of public transport, are completely over–ridden by the negative impacts of the additional consumption of the (affluent) inner-city areas.]

    This is, at the least, misleading because it simplistically implies what I said earlier: “So for example, it would suggest that taking a bogan & family out of his McMansion in Kellyville and planting him in one of those inner city areas he would suddenly become an energy hog, flying around the world all the time etc.”

    It really is very confused because “smart growth” is about making more sensible urban areas everywhere, including in the outer regions, even if dense TOD will more often be proposed for areas closer to the city (not really “inner”–other than old brownfield sites–because they are resistant to such redevelopment) that might already be on transport corridors (as opposed to the $14 billion they say it will cost to build a train line to Kellyville!).

    Michael: Well, I think it’s an extremely important point – that creating a sustainable world requires looking beyond the conventional urban solutions. They’re part of it, but they’re not even the main part. The ACF seems to think we’ve lost sight of the big picture and I think it’s right. However, that’s what I intend to highlight in my second post. AD

  11. michael r james

    Alan, I am more concerned about what others (the usual suspects) say about this study. Already Baillieu, BOF and Newman are spouting about trying to release large amounts of exurban land for developers to turn into McMansion suburbs. In the name of serving those infamous working families even though it does the opposite. Newman is busy cancelling every green initiative he can find, wants to repeal the MRRT on Queensland coal miners, reintroduce subsidies on electricity and water bills, reduce car registration cost, scrapping sustainability declarations, repeal the Industry Waste Levy.

    I find the point of the study, well pointless. And almost certainly due to including international air travel in the energy use stats. And from that we can conclude that…. ? I can see no single aspect of public policy or energy policy that it is relevant to, or at least is illuminating something we didn’t already know. As you said, it is no surprise so why continue to discuss it on an urban planning blog? You saw the reaction to the first time you discussed the paper. A bunch of commenters (though I may be getting crossed wires here with a similar thing on The Conversation recently) have made exactly that false conclusion regarding housing type or high-density developments.

    I am just saying that there are a lot more interesting studies out there that are both clearer and more relevant and worthy.

    Michael: Nah, haven’t discussed it here before, must’ve been The Conversation. There are good reasons to look at the ACF paper. For one thing it’s frequently cited, so understanding it properly is important. Also, it helps explain one of the key phenomena in cities – selection effects. See my 2nd last para in the post. AD

  12. michael r james

    You see, Alan, Frank has just done it.

    Of course he doesn’t need anything other than his own prejudices to fuel a rant. Well done, FC! Yes, I am one of those inner-city green types. Actually I believe my eco footprint would be a lot lower than most people I know. And since returning to Oz I find I don’t do so much air travel. However I do not want to be constrained in air travel (though I would do it by train if I could!)–you know, I want to see as much of this amazing planet before we send it up in a puff of smoke. And that is why I want to see lots of R&D on renewable energy.
    Other than ripping out all the wind turbines, and perhaps that “Greenies” have a mandated energy quota (though you might want to be careful on that one, Frank, as country folk have the highest energy use of all), what is your solution? Business as usual? Well, if you voted for Baillieu you got it: even more brown coal than ever will be mined and burned. Too late for you but he has blocked most wind turbine plans. Ten years of him and Victoria will be back in the 50s and you’ll be happy…

  13. michael r james

    Alan, I am breaking my vow not to comment on this, but really: “The ACF looked beyond traditional planning variables to include other factors.”

    Well, but why did they include those other variables and did it makes any sense? No, it makes no sense at all given the real question–at least the only question of interest to anyone looking at housing types. They are making a completely unscientific false equivalence–that one housing/city form is associated with wealth, and because that wealth is associated with, say, lots of international air travel, the housing type is far worse environmentally. But it is untrammeled nonsense.

    So for example, it would suggest that taking a bogan & family out of his McMansion in Kellyville and planting him in one of those inner city areas he would suddenly become an energy hog, flying around the world all the time etc. No, of course it wouldn’t. But on the other hand, same bogan might well not find the need to own 3 cars (or 2 or even 1, as 77% of Manhattan households), would no longer be permanently air-conditioning the vast spaces of a poorly designed McMansion and so on. (I second IkaInk’s analysis/critique re consumables.)

    Even the issue of more single-occupancy housing (in higher-density areas) is irrelevant to the question, unless old Soviet style communal housing is being advocated as mandatory. ie. the Western world has more and more solo households–it is a fact and while it has an impact on energy use per se, it is irrelevant to the issue of housing type (actually not really, it is the opposite of the ACF implication: ie. it is clearly better to have such solo households in apartments rather than McMansions).

    And I am quite unconvinced by the paper anyway. Any argument that has to resort to infeasibly, and quite unnecessarily, complicated equations always send my bs alarm bells ringing. I have worked, and written papers, with such people for 35 years and I know that “trick”. It is impossible to get to the raw data so we just get this highly processed outcome.

    You say that you will write more on this article. Please don’t. This poor paper is already being used by AGM deniers and developers (who will have never read the paper) as “proof” of …whatever they want. The paper is irrelevant to city planning unless the conclusion is that business types should not be allowed air travel (which it is true some “extreme greens” may advocate). From memory, one international air trip is claimed to consume more fossil fuel than the average American consumes from driving his car each year. So, it is easy to see (but frankly impossible to tell from the paper) that this alone might account for the wonky figures. (Of course a true scientific approach would normalize for this factor–or omit it entirely–since it has nothing to do with the question but is a confounder.)

    There are of course dozens of other papers and data sets, in more esteemed publications, that prove the opposite. For example, the analysis of the purpose-built suburb of Hammarby Sjostad in Stockholm which is a redevelopment of an inner-city brownfield site, of apartment buildings of 6-7 floors in family-friendly configuration. The factor that makes comparisons easier and valid is that the inhabitants are very comparable to the ones in older outer suburban areas in Stockholm. That study found a twofold improvement in energy use (in what is probably already quite efficient Swedish energy use).

    Michael: I think you’re being a bit hasty. As I said at #7, “I think there’s little doubt the physical characteristics of the inner city are better for the environment (e.g. density, access to PT) than elsewhere”. I don’t think the ACF is in any way seeking to diss the inner city or density. They’re most certainly not blaming the housing type.

    One of the ACF’s key findings is that income is a big driver of environmental impact and, since it is a spatial analysis, the study finds inner city/inner suburban residents have a bigger per capita environmental impact. That’s not a surprise.

    Studies invariably have failings but at least the reader can see most of the assumptions and data – that is not the case with personal opinion and anecdote (although I agree the ACF could be forthcoming with info on the methodology). AD

  14. Frank Campbell

    As I’ve pointed out on this site several times, there are political corollaries of this fairly obvious inner-urban high consumption story. Green voters are heavily concentrated in these urban enclaves. Intense if inconspicuous consumption. As Bob Brown said- “we Greens travel a lot”, and he wasn’t referring to bicycles. Inner city Greens are a well-heeled property-rich professional cohort with close to zero relationship with the real environment. It would be strange indeed if they didn’t have Yeti-like carbon footprints.

    This is one reason why the predicted apotheosis of the Greens (most evident after Abbott’s defeat of Turnbull) did not and will not happen: Greens are a geographically-limited fragment of the securely employed, mainly public-sector middle class. Rapidly increasing power bills are of little concern to them, as is the fact that current renewable technologies are both expensive and useless.

    Class, increasing inequality and hypocrisy are all still alive and pernicious, in spite of the vaunted “end of class”,”end of history” propaganda generated by corporate capitalism and its colonised corporate state. Just listen to the banal euphemisms of Gillard…

  15. Stephen

    Quite the reverse of the argument in the David Owen books, that NYC persons have carbon footprints rather lower than the American average.

    It’s all a bit deckchairs-on-Titanic anyway, when Australia is hellbent on its morbid 1.5-2% pa population growth, 1m hectare pa land clearance, the biggest coal exports in the world, continuing native-forest logging, and a meaningless emissions-trading scheme. The green groups have all dislocated their necks, looking the other way from Tony Burke’s population ‘policy’ of 2011.

    Stephen: I think there’s little doubt the physical characteristics of the inner city are better for the environment (e.g. density, access to PT) than elsewhere – it’s the incomes of the residents of the inner city that’re the killer. The ACF looked beyond traditional planning variables to include other factors. Given their wealth, the footprint of Manhattanites in particular must be enormous when an holistic view is taken. AD

  16. Wiz Aus

    I too have an issue with most of the assumptions that go into determining environmental impact. Unfortunately what does seem to be the case is that if you take a decent-length overseas trip once a year (which I do), that tends to overwhelm any other measures you might take to reduce your impact, largely because as far as it is understood, CO2 released at high altitudes has a much larger warming impact. And yes I try to do my bit to donate towards organizations dedicated to undo-ing CO2 impact, but I don’t kid myself that it reverses this.
    But I guess as I see it, if I choose to live in a large house in the outer suburbs then my options for minimizing environmental impact are far far less, and worse, I’d almost certainly have more disposal income left to spend on goods and services that would further add to that impact.

  17. G for George

    The ‘other things being equal’ aspect of the inner v outer debate doesn’t make sense to me. New multi-unit housing is the most expensive accommodation per m2 to build and buy/rent, and by nature it is smaller and tends to be occupied by smaller households, so it figures that the households that live in new multi-unit accommodation will likely have higher incomes (and EFs, according to the calculators) than the households they are replacing (or adding to). I note also from Melbourne research that the households moving into new multi-unit accommodation in the inner city have travel patterns that are largely car-based (again, unlike the households that they are replacing or adding to). So the simple inner = good, outer = bad logic of the urban consolidationists simply doesn’t make sense from an environmental viewpoint. As Alan points out, the ‘spare’ capacity in inner areas has largely proven illusory, even in cities like Melbourne that were much more richly endowed in the first place with infrastructure. In Brisbane, it’s actually more expensive to augment infrastructure in the inner city for additional residents than it is to provide it on the fringe. Despite all of this, the prevailing ideology is still strongly in favour of compaction. Urban consolidation: ‘lovelier the fourth time around’, maybe?

  18. Socrates

    Further to #3, you should really add the extra infrastructure required to service people in outer suburbs rather than inner. This entails huge resource consuption during construction of kms of extra roads, railways, water, gas, sewerage, power and electricity lines and their maintenance from then on. Almost certainly, these are counted as State resource usage, but they are disproportionately required by outer suburban residents. I have been involved in State studies in the past of infrastructure requirements of outer as opposed to inner suburban residents, and the differences were dramatic (30% or more of the purchase price of the block for outer areas).

    This is not meant to be a diatribe against outer suburban residents, but to point out you don’t get realistic policy conclusions unless you get accurate and complete information. With inner city housing priced beyond the reach of average income earners, and most state governments committed to more sprawl (whether they admit it or not), there will be many in power reluctant to release such information.

    Socrates: As I read it, the ACF researchers were interested in the average environmental impact of different locations (rather than the marginal impact of an additional resident). They looked at all Australia, not just inner vs fringe. However if you are looking at the marginal resident why would you exclude the associated infrastructure costs for inner city residents? I think most of the “spare” infrastructure capacity that existed in the inner city once upon a time is long gone. AD

  19. Socrates

    I share IkaInk’s concerns about reporting methods here. The EF calculators I have seen have had very simplistic assumptions about things like car use. They don’t actually ask people to state their fuel usage, or estimate it via mileage and car type. They assume resource usage based on standardised measures, rather than actually measure resource usage. The ACF calculator linked to simply groups people by postcode. If you look at more detailed analysis of fuel usage, such as in Dodson and Sipe’s Vampire Index, fuel usage is much higher in outer suburbs, as you would expect. Like green stars on building ratings, this atlas doesn’t mean much.

    I also question the conclusions about economies of scale and household size, which in my view given the lack of data, are merely assumptions. There are many bundled deals for utilities that tend to disguise the real level of resource consumption of larger families. We moved into our current home following a family with two teenage children. We could tell from utility bill histories that we more than halved the former level of power and water consumption over the following year. Yet the ACF calculator still tells me my consumption is well above the state average, just because I live in the same postcode. I don’t believe it.

  20. IkaInk

    I’ve got some pretty big gripes when it comes to these sorts of analyses. Ecological Footprint Calculators (ECF) are at best, wild estimates based on minimal inputs that are in turn based on big assumptions. They are interesting educational tools, and a good method of raising awareness of issues, but have little place in trying to establish facts. I can’t speak entirely for the ACF report, as I haven’t looked at their methods, but it sounds like they’re making similar assumptions to the EFCs I’ve run some tests through.

    Here’s an example: I ran two tests through a EFC last year. I answered all questions the same except for one which asked whether I: “was frugal with money, often saving”, “lived within my means”, “was living out of my means, accumulating debt” (all options paraphrased). The first time I answered what was true of the time. I was living out of my means and my credit card bills were stacking up. The next time I said I was “frugal with my money, often saving”. The first answer gave me a considerably higher Ecological Footprint (EF) result than the second. Both conditions had been true within about a 4 month period, yet my income hadn’t changed. For years I had been saving, although I still had been spending considerable sums on going out, buying myself things, etc. Then I bought my flat. Despite my expenditure on new furniture, gadgets, partying, etc going down dramatically, I was struggling to adjust to the expenditure of my mortgage payments. So suddenly according to the EFC: by paying a mortgage, instead of rent, I suddenly had a higher EF, despite having considerably less spending money.

    Similar assumptions are made about food, furniture and gadgets. It’s certainly true that people on high incomes spend more money on food. Does that mean there is a higher contribution to an EF? Does a $100 meal at a high class restaurant really create 5 times the waste of a $20 meal at a low end restaurant? Does spending a premium on organic, fair-trade, local, ‘farmed by orphans that are looked after and nurtured by caring nuns’, really contribute more to an EF than Safeway’s $9.98 chickens? (I’ve worked in the factory those chickens come from, I can promise that there is nothing at all sustainable about their methods!) Once again, is there a huge difference between the ecological impact of a $3,000 latest model flat screen and the JB-Hifi house brand model for $400, or a $6,000 couch vs. a $500 couch?

    I’m not dismissing the claims that people on higher incomes have a higher impact, certainly the impact of flying is extraordinarily high and people of higher incomes tend to fly a lot more. I’m just not convinced that spending more on product X means it has a higher impact. In fact I’d argue its often the opposite, good quality (more expensive) products tend to last a lot longer than cheaper equivalents. My parents (who are pretty well off) have had the same couches for more than 30 years. They’ve been reupholstered, but not replaced. I doubt I’ll be able to make the same claim on the couches I bought a few years back.

    IkaInk: The ACF study used three measures: Ecological footprint, emissions and water consumption. Like most things, there are bad EF calculators and better ones. AD

  21. hk

    Readers could estimate by how much their Ecological Footprint (EFP) has changed over the past decade; and then ask themselves what variation in their contribution in use of the urban land use and transport system has made to the change.

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