It is no longer a secret for anyone except for those who want to refuse it, global warming is putting the planet in danger, it is becoming obvious that Westerners are over-consuming the Earth’s resources. If we could – wrongly – not worry about the environment with three billion humans in 1960, when natural resources seemed inexhaustible, the situation varies with more than eight billion people, on the way to ten billion .
We should certainly consume less to try to preserve the essentials. In this period of rising costs, including energy costs, the poorest and most disadvantaged have no choice: they must consume less to eventually make ends meet.
Some citizens can try harder, some can’t. Part of the Western population wants it, another less so. Should we be equal before the current pollution and if so, how to assess it? Let’s illustrate this with a few more or less pollutants: let’s first imagine a citizen who saves money all year round, saving himself for his annual vacation in Africa where he goes by plane. His neighbor prefers a small cruise on a mega boat in the Mediterranean Sea. His cousin does not travel but drives every weekend in a very lead-polluting oldtimer; this cousin’s brother drives a very powerful electric car whose batteries will have to be recycled or replaced one day… It also seems that these cars only pollute less after 100,000 km of use, is therefore not the right choice for all. Finally, let’s think of the cousin’s sister-in-law whose old television screen will go to an African dump… Which of them is better or worse for the environment?
The question of pollution must be considered on a planetary level: why should 11 million Belgians sacrifice their comfort and tighten their belts when 1.4 billion Chinese will be inclined to consume and therefore pollute more to achieve the objective of their President re-elected, to be the first economic power in the world in 2049? Not to mention the same number of Indians… Should we tighten our belts more than developing countries on the grounds that we have historically consumed more planetary resources than them? Should consumption history be taken into account or not? However, if the CO2 emissions of Europe fell by 16% and those of the USA by 10% between 2000 and 2018, those of India increased at the same time by 155%, those of China by 208% and those of other countries by 53% (according to the Global Carbon Project).
This should lead us to realize that we are not paying the true price of things, what English speakers call the TCO for “Total Cost of Ownership”, the total cost of ownership of a good or service. When we buy a product to consume or store it, the price we pay for it is the accumulation of the costs and profits of the intermediaries who brought it to fruition. But its subsequent processing to give back to nature what was hers is not integrated into it. It is certainly possible to calculate the environmental cost of certain products or services, it is also probably complicated for others.
However, the cost of recycling our purchases should be included in our expenses. Would this “reality cost” be calculated by a “pollution standard” at the planetary level? Should every company undergo a certification check? Large companies already have a commissioner’s report, others submit to an inspection to maintain their quality standards on ISO models, CE marking or others. At the Belgian level, an environmental appendix could be added to the annual accounts published at the Belgian National Bank (BNB).
Is the utopia of the annual permit with points to pollute the environmental solution? In Belgium we do not even know the driving license with points. Inspired by our French neighbors for driving, a global pollution permit could work like this: each individual would have an annual pollution credit fairly fixed at the planetary level. Fairly does not mean equally, we could here take into account historical catch-ups. The credit cards that everyone has would be equipped with a pollution point counter that would be debited with each purchase.
Nothing would be charged to us for the purchase of a lettuce that grew near our home in the open ground without fertilizers. On the other hand, the same prepared salad bought in a supermarket or elsewhere would integrate all its environmental costs, including transport. There would no longer be plane tickets costing a few euros: the prices would take into account all the costs of the trip, from that of extracting kerosene to recycling the plane at the end of its life. Everyone would be faced with their responsibilities in the face of planetary limits. There could be differences between countries but they would not be the cause of environmental distortions.
Utopias make the world move forward or dream. And if not, they at least have the merit of making us think. This is one more reason to move towards greater transparency of the real planetary costs of our consumption.