[Editor's Note: This is the second part in a series running Thursday through Saturday. You can read part 1 here.]
The danger of continuing such a ‘growth at all costs’ approach is amplified when only financially profitable solutions to the climate crisis are pursued by governments. In most industrialised countries the largest and most influential businesses are oil corporations and car manufacturers that wield significant lobbying power over governments, and a responsibility to their shareholders before any commitment to reduce CO2 emissions.
Given both the overriding commitment by corporations to profit and a dependency by the population on the consumption of oil, there is little incentive for these industries to encourage people to consume less fossil fuel. As one example, car manufactures have traditionally prioritised speed and aesthetics over efficiency, and some of the most fuel efficient cars available today are less economical in fuel use than those available over two decades ago – particularly in the US. Whilst this approach has contributed to gross domestic product (GDP) and generated huge incomes for the car industry, the average ‘miles per gallon’ usage in US cars is currently less than it was in the 1908 model T Ford.
A spiralling level of economic and financial competition between nations is also stifling effective agreement and action on emission reductions, whilst continuing to aggravate the often-tense relationship between countries in the Global North and South. Given the competitive nature of the global economy, most governments resist enacting tough legislation to curb emissions in the fear of losing their competitive financial edge. They prefer instead to use less effective market-based mechanisms that will facilitate a continued prioritisation of economic growth.
Green taxes on driving cars or flying in airplanes discriminate against the poor and are only half measures compared to stricter legislation, such as outright bans on cars in cities or domestic flights. Despite being a key mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, setting an agreed ‘cap’ on emission levels and then allowing some companies to ‘trade’ their allowances to other firms for profitdoesn’t reduce emissions as effectively as simply legislating for larger reductions. Whilst strict legislation would force corporations to innovate greener technology, ‘Cap and Trade’ results in incremental and insufficient adjustments to emissions with a view to creating new markets and expanding profits.
Carbon offsets are an increasingly popular way of reducing emissions, and present yet another business opportunity that contributes to GDP. Palliative measures such as planting trees or purchasing offsets sold by ‘greener industries’, while at the same time pursuing business as usual, does little to mitigate the unsustainable and damaging activities that emit greenhouse gases in the first place.
An understanding of how business opportunity has trumped effective policy can be drawn from a host of other market friendly solutions to global warming. Bio-fuel expansion accelerates climate change through increased deforestation, the destruction of ecosystems, peat drainage, and an increasing use of nitrate fertilisers. Policies that encourage ‘clean coal’ production or carbon capture and storage (CCS) help governments to justify the continued building of coal plants, thereby appealing to the fossil fuel lobby and obfuscating the deeper issues. And the nuclear lobby is using climate change to revive their flagging industry despite serious concerns over hazardous wastes, a lengthy development process, and clear evidence of its marginal capacity to reduce emissions.
Ultimately, none of these options addresses our over-reliance on fossil fuels, the problems with continued industrial expansion, or the need for more sustainable modes living and working. Instead of limiting advertising, restricting the overuse of pollutants or legislating for deeper cuts in emissions in key polluting industries, governments and corporations have adopted a strategy that leaves the average citizen feeling responsible for solving the climate crisis themselves.
The tendency of governments to trust business models and not strong legislation is skilfully masked by shifting guilt and responsibility onto ‘consumers’, and much of the public debate still remains focussed around recycling, changing light bulbs and re-using carrier bags. By reducing their carbon footprints and making choices that are more responsible in lifestyle and consumption habits, people in the developed world may try to live more sustainable lives. Whilst engagement by the public is crucial, and personal adjustments are necessary, consumer measures are limited in their effectiveness and generally only possible in the richest countries.
Moreover, the ideal of ‘consumer choice’ in goods and services is predicated on the continued consumption of natural resources, the pollution from which is one of the main drivers of climate change. By any assessment, it would take decades for consumer preferences to re-orient the current model of production and consumption that remains driven by the need to increase profit levels and share prices endlessly.
A more suitable strategy would be for governments to enact legislation targeting the source of emissions, for example by regulating the exploitation of natural resources by industrial producers, including the full environmental costs of production into the price of goods, and discouraging the all-pervading consumer culture that is increasingly the focus of life, even in the developing world. These and similar measures would shift the responsibility away from the end ‘consumer’ who is presently encouraged to continue over-consuming, albeit more conscientiously.
[come back tomorrow for part 3, entitled "Revisiting the Limits of Growth"]
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 Almuth Ernsting, Deepak Rughani, and Dr Andrew Boswell, Agrofuels threaten to Accelerate Global Warming, Report from Biofuel Watch, UNFCC, Bali, December 2007.
 International Forum on Globalization, Keep Nuclear out of CDM: It’s an Obstacle to Carbon Mitigation, International Forum on Globalization.