Dead Men Left

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"A climate of responsibility": a reply

My post on New Labour's failure to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets attracted a couple of responses, from DoDo and Third Avenue. Very briefly, I suggested that a large part of its failure was due to the collapse of its earlier, more radical promises to tackle car use: instead of promoting environmentally-sustainable transport, the government had caved into the roads lobby. However, Third Avenue, advocating ethical consumerism over "blaming the government", points out that:

Government itself does not go about producing all these emissions. Much of it comes from the activities of people like you and me. We drive our cars, we heat our homes, we consume and consume and consume. We create and work for businesses that do likewise. Does it not therefore follow that the responsibility for this failed manifesto commitment is as much ours as it is Blair's? Or is Blair's failure really his inability to nanny us into behaving in ways that we know are right but which we are too weak to adopt without his assistance?

If we really want to tackle pollution, we cannot leave it solely or even mainly to governments. Governments, while always having a key role to play, will always be too scared to push us hard enough - to push us to reduce the perceived quality of our lives for the sake of the greater good. We must do this ourselves willingly. Until we recognise this fact, I fear that blaming governments is merely a way of appeasing our own guilty consciences.

Ethical consumerism is easy when we are all well-informed. Unfortunately, the market acts to keep us stupid. To use a car, I pay for the car itself plus whatever petrol I need. I don't, however, pay for the congestion I cause, the pollution I generate, and the increased probability of road accidents I contribute. I don't meet the full cost of my own car use - which would include the costs I inflict on others. Governments have intervened here before: compulsory insurance, road and petrol taxes, plus (in London) the congestion charge go some way to redress this balance. But the gap remains large. I, like everyone else, am left with a major incentive to over-use my car. The market, left by itself, rewards non-ethical consumption. Our incentives to do otherwise are distorted, whatver our wider concerns may be. The case for some outside intervention is clear.

But how do we close this gap between "private" and "public" costs? The congestion charge in London, despite predictions of catastrophe, has been rather successful in reducing traffic use in central London, and is generally popular with the public. New Labour's failure to build on this success was condemned in recent report by the Royal Geographic Society on British transport policy. Extending the congestion charge to other city centres could make for major improvements in the quality of life there.

However, Third Avenue is right to say that "Governments... will always be too scared... to push us to reduce the perceived quality of our lives for the sake of the greater good." The problem I laid out above is that we are unable to "push" ourselves without their help; and, even if we are "pushed", as Shuggy says in his comment to Third Avenue's piece, we cannot reasonably deprive developing nations of standards of life we enjoy.

This, I think, is where we must move from sticks, to carrots. There needs to be a concerted effort to make alternatives to emissions-heavy consumption desirable. Public transport transport needs to undermine car use. That means trains, buses, trams, and the rest, should be more attractive - much cheaper, more reliable - propositions than cars. That, in turn, means public funding and a government with the political will to deliver it: both to clean up the existing mess in public transport, a tangle of deregulated operators and runaway subsidies, and to provide improvements in quality.

This leads on to Shuggy's point. Mike Kidron, in his last published article, noted that current measures of economic growth do not adequately account for the depletion of environmental resources.

A reconstruction of national income accounts for the US from 1960 to 1986, counting only those increases in output that fed into improved well-being, and adjusting for the depletion of social and environmental resources--an index of economic welfare rather than output--suggested that individual welfare peaked in 1969, held steady in the 1970s, and then fell. Studies in Holland put the damage caused by pollution (air, water and noise) in 1986 at 0.5-0.9 percent of gross national product (GNP). Similar studies estimated that pollution damage in Germany was costing 6 percent of GNP. An earlier, more limited study for the US put the costs of pollution damage at 1.28 percent of GNP in 1978. A study of Costa Rica between 1970 and 1989 concluded that the average annual growth rate would have been more than a quarter less than recorded if the depreciation of forests, soils and fisheries had been taken into account--in 1989 alone deforestation cost the country 7.7 percent of GNP. The first, limited, green accounts in Britain, published in 1996, estimated the costs of oil and gas depletion at a quarter of the income of these industries (0.5 percent of GDP), and estimated that spending on pollution abatement by industry as a whole amounted to £2.3 billion in 1994 (1.5 percent of value added in industry). A study by the World Resources Institute in Washington DC concluded that Indonesia's economic performance between 1971 and 1984 was not the 7 percent per year generally accepted, but 4 percent once the depletion of oil, forests and topsoil were included in the calculations.

Standard measures of economic growth, like GDP per capita growth, are intensely "privatised": they measure the transactions that are easiest to count, the ones that show up in the market, and say little beyond them - regardless, as suggested above, of the side-effects of market activities. It is, of course, difficult to measure "social well-being": even the most widely-accepted measure, the UN's Human Development Index has been subjected to wide criticism.

Critical for us, however, is the notion that ways we think about "growth", or how we perceive "well-being" are themsevles open to criticism. Current measures of GDP would privilege wasteful car use over more efficient public transport, for example, precisely beacue one is more wasteful. When we talk about "development", we should bear in mind the different possibilities this may entail: very high car-use is one model; very high public transport use, another. By democratising the process of economic growth, opening the process up for prior discussion, we can ensure different, society-wide possibilities are presented. This brings the point home again: like no other issue, the defending the environment demands a centralised, decision-making body. The "sovereign consumer" is not enough.