Warming Trends: What Happens Once We Stop Shopping, Nano-Devices That Turn Waste Heat into Power and How Your Netflix Consumption Warms the Planet

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Shoppers walk on a Walmart parking lot after a pre-Black Friday shopping on Nov. 28, 2019 in Burbank, California. Credit: Apu Gomes via Getty Images
Shoppers walk on a Walmart parking lot after a pre-Black Friday shopping on Nov. 28, 2019 in Burbank, California. Credit: Apu Gomes via Getty Images

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New Book Puts Overconsumption Under the Microscope

What would happen if we all stopped shopping? What would change in that first hour, day, week or year after people halted purchasing more than they absolutely needed? How would our society, economy and planet react?

Those are the questions that author J.B. MacKinnon tackles in his new book, “The Day the World Stops Shopping,” publishing in the U.S. on May 25. The Canadian journalist, who has long covered systemic environmental issues like local food access, wrote this book exploring what would happen if consumption dropped to 25 percent of its current rate, leaving us with just the key essentials.

Inside Climate News recently talked to MacKinnon about his new book. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In your book you examine the “consumer dilemma.” Can you explain what that is?

Consumer dilemma is this situation we find ourselves in, where the planet needs us to stop shopping, and yet if we do that, whenever we do that, the economy will crash. It seems so impossible to conceive of reducing our consumption because the economic consequences seem so great, so I think we’ve dismissed the idea.


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What are some interesting things you found while putting this book together on how our world would be different if we all stopped shopping?

If we think about how we might get back to an economy where we’re buying fewer and better things, we’d need new business models on how to do that, how businesses could sustain themselves with high quality, long lasting goods rather than disposable goods.

We’re starting to see that emerge now with companies like Patagonia and Levi’s saying ‘We’re going to sell new products and used products, we’re going to repair our products,’ trying to come up with these new business models that would allow a reduction in the production of new things, keeping things alive in our world for longer periods of time.

How are shopping and overconsumption harmful to our climate and environment?

Consumption directly relates to every kind of environmental harm there is. We’re driving more, mining more, logging more, with more emissions. 

Before the pandemic, we were at a point of record resource consumption globally, and as we rebound out of the pandemic, we’re very likely to go back to that record and exceed it, especially with all this talk of a global consumer binge coming out of the pandemic.


Tiny Devices Gather Huge Amounts of Waste Heat

New research on tiny devices that turn waste heat into usable power brings the technology one huge step closer to being ready for the market, where they could be a player in the renewable energy transition. 

Optical rectennas are nanoscopic devices composed of an antenna that absorbs light or heat and a diode that converts it into energy. They have existed for decades, but the size of the devices, which are smaller than a human hair, present a dilemma. To pick up light and heat waves, they need to be really small. But if they are too small, they have high electrical resistance, which reduces their power output. 

A team of researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found a solution, which they detailed in a new article in Nature Communications this week. A technique called resonant tunneling provides the electrons with a path through the diode, reducing resistance so they don’t lose any energy, but still allowing them to capture energy from light and heat.

Lead author Amina Belkadi, who recently earned her Ph.D. from CU Boulder, said resonant tunneling has increased the efficiency of optical rectennas up by three orders of magnitude. Still, to get it efficient enough to bring to market, they would need to improve the efficiency by another three orders of magnitude, a feat she said may be 20 or 30 years away. 

Once the technology becomes viable, these optical rectennas could be used to capture waste heat from places like ovens in bakeries and repurpose it into usable energy.

“There’s so much heat out there” that could potentially be utilized with this technology, Belkadi said.


Watching How Chilling With Netflix Warms The Planet

A new online tool can tell you what the cost of your latest Netflix binge has been for the planet—and what you can do to reduce your impact.

The Germany-based online streaming guide JustWatch has a CO2 calculator that allows users to upload their Netflix watch history or take a brief survey to learn how much emission of carbon dioxide their streaming has caused. 

The calculator takes into account the device you use to stream, the energy sources that provide your electricity based on your location, your internet connection and the sources of energy that power the servers that host the streaming service. The data powering these calculations come from research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the International Energy Agency and several other organizations.

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Once you’ve calculated your carbon emissions, the tool provides you with ideas to reduce your footprint, like buying carbon offsets, switching to renewable energy and streaming on devices that consume less energy, like a laptop rather than a 4K TV.

“Of course you could not stream at all, but that’s not really an option, because it’s just what we do,” said Leo Brahm, the head of JustWatch’s SEO department who helped create the tool. “We want to make people more aware of it.”


Drops in the Bucket Locally Make Big Splashes in the Global Economy

Water quality protections often cost more than the benefits they provide to local fishing and recreation, but when global climate benefits are factored in, protections for the world’s water bodies can have trillions of dollars worth of benefits, according to a new study.

Existing research shows that bodies of water around the world will emit methane—a greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere—at rates 20 to 100 percent higher by 2050. The increase is being driven by eutrophication, a surge in nutrients in a lake or river often caused by runoff from farm fields. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin compared those methane projections to economic models used by government agencies that predict the financial cost of methane emissions on society. 

“If you look under the hood, these models are looking at things like climate damages related to things like temperature and mortality, human health impacts, agricultural impacts and sea level rise,” said study co-author Sheila Olmstead, an environmental economist at UT-Austin.

The researchers project that the cost of methane emissions from eutrophication of lakes and rivers will be between $7.5 trillion and $81 trillion by 2050, and the global value of reducing methane emissions from water bodies is 10 times greater than the local benefits to beaches and fishing. 

“We have a really incomplete picture of what some of the damages from ambient water pollution in lakes, rivers and streams might be,” Olmstead said. “We think this is filling a really important piece of the puzzle that’s been missed.”