Going green but getting nowhere


You reduce, reuse and recycle. You turn down plastic and paper. You avoid out-of-season grapes. You do all the right things. Good.

Just know that it would not save the tuna, protect the rain forest or stop global warming. The changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.

Say you are willing to make real sacrifices. Sell your car. Forsake your air-conditioner in the summer, turn down the heat in the winter. Try to become no-impact man. You would, in fact, have no impact on the planet. Americans would continue to emit an average of 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year; Europeans, about 10 tonnes.

What about going bigger? You are the pope with a billion followers, and let’s say all of them take your advice to heart. If all Catholics decreased their emissions to zero overnight, the planet would surely notice, but pollution would still be rising.

Of course, a billion people, whether they are Catholic or adherents of any other religion or creed, will do no such thing. Two weeks of silence in a Buddhist yoga retreat in the Himalayas with your BlackBerry checked at the door? Sure. An entire life voluntarily lived off the grid? No thanks.

And that focuses only on those who can decrease their emissions. When your average is 20 tonnes per year, going down to 18 tonnes is as easy as taking a staycation. But if you are among the four billion on the planet who each emit one tonne a year, you have nowhere to go but up.

Leading scientific groups and most climate scientists say we need to decrease global annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least half of current levels by 2050 and much further by the end of the century. And that will still mean rising temperatures and sea levels for generations.

So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to do something, anything. Call it “action bias”. But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it does not add up to enough.

Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.

Every tonne of carbon dioxide pollution causes around US$20 (S$24.70) of damage to economies, ecosystems and human health. That sum times 20 implies US$400 worth of damage per American per year. That is not damage you are going to do in the distant future. That is damage each of us is doing right now. Who pays for it?

We pay as a society. My cross-country flight adds fractions of a penny to everyone else’s cost. That knowledge leads some of us to voluntarily chip in a few bucks to “offset” our emissions. But none of these payments motivate anyone to fly less. It does not lead airlines to switch to more fuel-efficient planes or routes.

If anything, airlines by now use voluntary offsets as a marketing ploy to make green-conscious passengers feel better. The result is planetary socialism at its worst: We all pay the price because individuals do not.

It would not change until a regulatory system compels us to pay our fair share to limit pollution accordingly. Limit, of course, is code for “cap and trade”, the system that helped phase out lead in petrol in the ’80s, slashed acid rain pollution in the ’90s and is now bringing entire fisheries back from the brink.

“Cap and trade” for carbon is beginning to decrease carbon pollution in Europe and similar models are slated to do the same from California to China.

Alas, this approach has been declared dead in Washington, ironically by self-styled free-marketers. Another solution, a carbon tax, is also off the table because, well, it is a tax.

Never mind that markets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price for his actions. Anything else is socialism. The reality is that we cannot overcome the global threats posed by greenhouse gases without speaking the ultimate inconvenient truth: Getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.

Do not stop recycling. Do not stop buying local. But add mastering some basic economics to your to-do list. Our future will be largely determined by our ability to admit the need to end planetary socialism. That is the most fundamental of economics lessons and one any serious environmentalist ought to heed.

Gernot Wagner is an economist at the Environmental Defence Fund and the author of the forthcoming But Will the Planet Notice?

–  Today Online