Reducing carbon emissions: The limits of voluntarism

MountainThe focus on Shifting Society No. 9 was on ways we, as individuals living in the economically advanced nations of the world, can contribute to the fight against global warming and the dire threat it poses to life on this planet. This month I want to shift the argument to the larger responsibilities of corporate, legislative and government leaders.

It is true that there are countless small adjustments we could make in our living habits, which in their aggregate would not only help to significantly reduce carbon emissions, but also tend to be beneficial to our health. But how realistic is it to expect people to make such adjustments voluntarily, in large enough numbers to have an impact?

How it used to be...

Showa-style air conditioner

Let us consider for a moment what we are up against. Living conditions in the countries I knew well in the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s--Japan, the Netherlands and the U.K.--on the whole were sober, lacking most of the gadgets and luxuries that today are taken for granted, especially in Japan. Toilets with heated seats and bum sprays were unknown. Household appliances were limited to the essentials such as cooker, vacuum cleaner and washing machine, and perhaps a mixer/blender. Electric dishwashers and clothes dryers were a luxury. Automatic doors were as rare as station escalators and lifts. Television and radio were the primary source of home entertainment, together with hi-fi installations for the serious music buff. The computer, Internet and mobile phone culture that today we cannot do without was yet to arrive. Sushi and noodles could be ordered for home delivery, but convenience stores with their choice of instant meals were unknown. And if people owned a car, it was a small one, and only one per family.

Despite these 'primitive' conditions there was--say many who remember those times--a palpably greater sense of contentment and harmony among people than there seems to be today. With fewer distractions and less money to spend, families were closer-knit, and children could enjoy a real childhood, not some grotesque simulation of adult passions and vices through video games and manga.

Corporate and government initiatives are required

But that was then. We love our high-tech lifestyle and comforts, and want to hold on to them. We can't go back. Any voluntary adjustments in our way of living would be marginal, and fall far short of what is required to slow down, let alone reverse, the rush toward disaster. The real change has to come from those who gave us our toys and gadgets and the warm glow of convenience: the corporate-political establishment.

They could begin by turning off the lights (and air conditioning) in office buildings at night (energy use of buildings accounts for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in New York), not for a token hour, as they did in Australia in April 2008, to urge ordinary people to conserve, but every night. Next, switch off - better: get rid off - the enormous walls of cacophonous city-center advertising, with its mammoth videos and blinking exhortations to buy and consume. Other ideas: stop those empty, after-hours escalators in buildings and stations from running mindlessly into the night, and turn off half the street lights and most traffic lights after midnight, when traffic is reduced to a trickle, as they do in some countries. Instead of building more roads to nowhere, the government should use all available funds to accelerate the switch to alternative energy sources, and to introduce or increase subsidies to businesses and homeowners switching to solar panels.

The list of possible and urgently needed initiatives keeps growing, once you start focusing on them. But we don't. We lamely expect 'those-in-charge' to take care of the problem, without making any moves ourselves to force them to do so. The result is a lot of hand-wringing but only the odd low-energy electric bulb and over-hyped hybrid car helping to convince ourselves that we are doing our bit.

MonkeyBut let's not fool ourselves. The Bush administration refuses to accept binding targets for reducing emissions. Japan is well behind its own Kyoto Protocol target, which it is now trying to repair by buying emission credits on the international market. More than one-third of Japan's emissions - E the world's 5th highest - come from manufacturers, the rest from the service sector and--yes--households, the latter two having shown sharp increases since the protocol's base year of 1990. And the Kyoto targets are mild compared to what will be needed under any post-Kyoto regime. Yet, constrained by politics-as-usual, all major industrial powers are trying the duck the issue in one way or another--for example by moving their dirty factories to countries like China and India--with the result that we are sliding steadily towards the point of no return.

The voters' power

Clearly, at this late hour, the only effective way to force change is by drastic political initiatives, supported or triggered if necessary by massive popular pressure. Once voters take to the streets in numbers, to demand action accompanied by the threat of boycott, the vested interests may finally wake up. And - sweet irony - such result would be proof of the proper workings of the market system that we have been cajoled for decades to embrace.

Industry-driven initiatives are bound to fall far short of what is needed, as companies will always place their own interests first. Only binding emission standards and other mandatory rules for corporate behavior, coupled with rigorous enforcement, will do the job. Relying mostly on voluntary actions by companies and consumers alike is to choose the proverbial road paved with good intentions: it will lead to hell.

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© 2008 Hans Brinckmann