A Global Village
Issue 1

Global Warming: Who will Pay? Passing the Buck

Agneish Dutta & Rishi Dutta, Imperial College London

Climate change is expected to have a profound effect on the environment in which we live today. Indeed, the modern life-style, as we know it, will become unsustainable in the volatile and energy-parched world of the future.

Every person has a role to play in affecting that collective future, yet not many people are aware of the extent to which their individual activities and actions contribute the whole.

Do you wonder how to calculate that contribution? Can we continue to pass the buck?

Flying to Eternity
Nearly three million passengers travelled between London and New York a lone last year. These commuters travel in style: a comfortable departure lounge with complimentary in-flight services such as meals and the latest blockbuster.

This journey is a far cry from the transatlantic ocean liners in operation only 50 years ago. Fast, comfortable and now affordable, air travel has revolutionised modern transport. Today we do in fact live in a global village, so what is the catch?

Although the airline business is a relatively small industry, it has a disproportionately large impact on the environment, presently accounting for 4-9% of total carbon emissions from human activity.

This means that both you and I have directly contributed to the warming of our planet. Aside from minimizing air-travel to essential journeys, what can we do to reduce the impact of jumping on that Ryanair flight?

‘It is a bittersweet truth that people in the
West enjoy high standards of living, but are
currently responsible for most of the damage’

Already included in your ticket price are contributions to environmental-regulatory costs incurred by the airline for energy efficient machinery, catalytic converters and filters etc.

But what about a direct carbon tax for future damages to the environment?

Calculating Your Carbon Footprint

[FLICKR/ Leo Reynolds]A term that has recently been employed to quantify impact on the environment is ‘carbon footprint’. It is defined as ‘the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly by an individual, organization, event or product’.

Working out one’s personal carbon footprint enables one to begin to understand the potential magnitude of an individual contribution to this global problem. This calculation, however, is not so simple. It involves taking into account a number of factors, including household appliances, travel tastes (air, bus, rail and car etc.) and secondary footprints. A secondary footprint may include factors such as diet, recycling habits, furniture and even fashion tastes.

The average footprint for a citizen in the United Kingdom is 9.80 tonnes of CO2, far above the worldwide average of 4 tonnes. Indeed, in order to combat climate change effectively, the worldwide average needs to be just 2 tonnes.

A return flight to New York alone emits 1 ton of CO2. Does this fact alone induce a tinge of guilt?

Find Out Yours
The website carbonfootprint.com provides a quick and easy facility to calculate your own carbon footprint. The National Energy Foundation (NEF) provides a technical calculation, more suited to industry, requiring significant input information such as energy usage figures.

In fact energy and carbon emission consulting is a growing field with new and existing firms breaking into this market.

A leading example is the Carbon Trust, an independent company set up by the UK Government in 2001, which advises firms on both carbon cutting and energy saving measures. The trust estimates that it saves UK business £1 million every day.

To Tax, or Not to Tax, that is the Question
The excesses of the last decades in the West have taken their toll on the climate. Now we must pay.

But how do we go about taxing ourselves for past and current excesses?

A leading proposal is based on the idea that the Polluter Pays; economic policy advises the introduction of pigouvian taxation. Here the buck would literally stop with the polluting companies.

Yet employing government levies may simply induce companies to raise prices and directly pass the cost onto consumers. Inflationary worries aside; this is potentially a
just approach, as consumers of high carbon emitting goods would pay directly for that privilege.

‘The ability of a State to become energy
efficient will soon become synonymous with
economic growth’

An alternative scheme is for the government to levy an ‘environmental tax’ directly on high energy consumers (a specific VAT), with a similar effect as the above, or a universal tax. The latter suffers from the problem that a higher proportion of income is levied on the poor; the tax is regressive.

On approach to Manhattan, New York: A return flight from Heathrow alone emits 1 tonne of CO2 [FLICKR/John Wardell]

Every Little Helps
Taxation alone will not solve the problem; we cannot simply buy our way out of trouble.

Consumers will simply have to reduce energy usage as oil stocks dwindle in the next decade or two. In fact the ability of a state to become energy efficient will soon become synonymous with economic growth.

It is the responsibility of the individual to participate in this effort – energy efficient light bulbs, turning off air-conditioning and cycling to work are ways in which we can all contribute.

Western consumers will have to both compensate for past damage to the environment and radically change the way energy is used in the future through taxes and savings. Life-styles will change but we will adapt.

The Eurostar anyone?

Agneish Dutta is a 2nd year Medical student at Imperial College who currently sits on the Student Union Council. His brother Rishi Dutta is a student at St. Olave’s Grammar School.

Leave A Comment