Environmentalism Shouldn’t be a Choice

Image Credit: Ellen Nugent

'At least two sides'

A friend of mine writes a great newsletter called Gentle Decline. It presupposes that as a society we will be unable to tackle climate change and that we must prepare for the inevitable bleaker future that will be a consequence of our inaction. If they are right, environmentalism, as it is mostly practised today, is just a tax on the behaviour of good actors, whether they be individuals, companies or governments.

Making pro-environment choices is still something that many people want to do to make themselves feel better, maybe just less guilty. If people recycle, well at least they are not making the world worse as much as those that do not. Of course, how much recycling is doing to help with the problem of global warming is very much up for debate. Recycling, when left to the moderately informed individual, is often done poorly and has historically exploited foreign countries who have just dumped much of it into their landfill instead of ours. There have been plenty of reports recently on how the recycling system in various countries is falling apart because more and more companies are extracting the valuable parts of goods before it gets to recyclers, and so recyclers are just glorified dumping grounds for many materials. Global crisis has also played a role. The fall in the oil prices due to Covid-19 has led to the price of virgin plastics falling, which makes recycled plastics less economically viable.

More than ever, we need to move away from individual actions nibbling at the edges of the problem and take massive state-wide action that will inevitably hurt but will involve everyone and so will achieve the scale required and will be fairer. But how do we make this happen when the people who should care the most, environmentally conscious voters, feel free to vote for parties who do not deliver green policies.

We are treating the environment as if it is just another charity. People make contributions to the cause to make themselves feel good, or to look good in front of others. But the environment is not just another charity, it is as important as Health and Education, areas in which governments take big roles. The Irish government has been particularly slow to do its part, only just rolling out the lowest possible carbon tax to meet its international obligations. It has a history of kicking the can down the road on environmental issues.

When you think about the environment and the rate of government action you should be mad. If making small changes yourself is making you feel better about the situation is that really that useful? Yes, we can practice good policy at home and attempt to lead by example, but individual action will not get us where we want to go, we need to demand that action is taken at scale by all large actors but especially by governments.

I watched a report by the economist that claimed that airlines were willing to pay more for biofuels, up to 50% more, but not up to 300% more which is what they currently cost. Airlines could be contributing up to 22% to the world's carbon emissions by 2050, so there is a lot of pressure on the industry to go green. However, politicians are not aggressively pursuing the kind of carbon taxes that would make companies consider lower carbon alternatives favourably.

There are issues around carbon taxes that worry poverty experts, but these can be addressed through welfare systems. Some proposals suggest that everyone should get a yearly carbon tax dividend which is, importantly, not tied to your energy consumption, so that the net effect of the tax should be low, and the incentives to reduce carbon production remain. Similarly, the impact of carbon taxes on prices concerns many. However, these price signals are important. Airline travel should be more expensive as long as it is a high carbon producer, it’s the price signal that reduces consumption. In some countries people have started flight shaming, forming demonstrations at airports, but a much better way for governments to tackle the pollution of aircraft would be to make sure that the airline ticket includes the price of that damage - that is what carbon taxes are for, they are meant to dissuade people from taking the environment harming action in the first place.

I know many of you are going stir crazy in this lockdown and are saving for foreign trips when things open again. Take a moment to consider how one flight undoes years of good environmentalist behaviour. If you are thinking, 'well I’ve done well for a few years, I deserve this flight', this is what economists refer to as moral accounting, good behaviour can lead to bad actions. What we need is to take that choice away. The government should take aggressive action that prices in the costs of environmental damage into our everyday lives so that we are all incentivised to make pro-environment decisions.