Hopes were high as our leaders gathered in Durban late last year. But another round of prevarication, indecision, postponement and finally outright refusal to meet carbon targets has certainly left those of us concerned about climate change feeling very discouraged. Yet not surprised. Since the very first attempts at addressing carbon emissions, our governments have approached the problem in the same reluctant, reductionist way. We’ve been led to believe that reducing carbon emissions will involve sacrifice—that we have to tighten our belts and soldier through an economic rough patch if we are to hold back climate chaos. By way of excusing the Canadian government’s recent reneging on their Kyoto commitments, one journalist quipped: “where there are jobs there are emissions, in equal measure. The only sure fire way of slashing emissions across an entire economy is to have a deep and lasting economic collapse…” Even the best intentioned among us have a hard time stomaching this idea as we deal with the current credit crunch, widespread recession and the Eurozone crisis.
Fortunately, this widely cited equation of “jobs equals carbon emissions” is completely wrong. We can have a vibrant, sustainable economy with adequate employment, while reducing greenhouse gases and protecting the biosphere. To see how to get there, we need to take a long, hard look at how we do business today and how this inevitably leads to ever increasing emissions.
Wedded to a paradigm of unending “growth” our governments have steadily deregulated trade and finance through trade treaties, a whole host of visible and hidden tax breaks, and many other policy measures. Pressured by multinational corporations, governments have handed over power and it is now big business, including global banks, that determine the direction of the economy. And in this global economy, there is little room for diversity, for small business, for local production serving local needs, or even for efficiency. But wait a minute, isn’t the supposed reason for the growing scale of global businesses that they are more efficient? The fact is, the efficiency of the global economy is possibly the most pervasive myth of our time. Look behind the scenes and the illusion falls away to reveal wanton waste of people and natural resources, large amounts of pointless pollution and a mass of externalities for which we taxpayers foot the bill.
In nearly every country, production is increasingly geared toward export, which inherently involves more carbon emissions. Policies support this across the board. For example, in China, re-importing has become common practice. Selling goods domestically incurs a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 17%, but exports enjoy VAT rebates and imports are completely exempt. As a result, China’s businesses routinely export goods and then reimport them to evade VAT. In fact, China imported more goods from itself than it did from the United States between 2005 and 2008. This is just one of the many useless ways we have of burning fossil fuels.
Redundant trade is another: Because companies try to take advantage of minute price swings and other financial advantages, identical products are regularly swapped back and forth from country to country. For example, the United States exports around 350,000 tons of potatoes each year, while importing roughly 320,000 tons. Beef exports and imports both total around 900,000 tons. The same holds true for a range of other goods including sugar, bottled water and waffles. This is not a practice unique to the US; most other industrialized countries participate in the same wasteful food exchange with the same or different goods. For instance, the UK imports approximately the same amount of milk, bread, eggs and pork as it exports.
You would think all this waste was not only inefficient, but very costly. It is, but not to corporations because once again taxpayers cover most of the bill: from 2002 to 2008, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) found that US government subsidies for fossil fuels totaled approximately $72 billion, two and a half times the amount directed toward renewables.
If we really want to tackle climate change, shifting trade regulations and subsidies would be a relatively simple and very effective place to start. If we change our policies to support the local on a global scale, we could not only shave off a substantial portion of carbon emissions, but also take steps to rebuild local economies and communities. This is what an Economics of Happiness is all about—supporting small-scale on a large scale. It’s not hard to see how a thriving network of diverse local businesses providing for local needs will generate a people-friendly, job-rich and low carbon economy. This kind of economic localization enables us to reduce our ecological footprint in other ways as well by encouraging more low impact ways of producing food and consumer goods.
It’s time we recognize that the driving force behind climate chaos is the globalising economy, not our innate failings as human beings. Unfortunately, however, many of us have become trapped in a cycle of self-recrimination. We are told that we are not doing enough to reduce household energy use, that we are driving and flying too much… In the meanwhile, our tax dollars contribute to an escalation in redundant trade and other wasteful business practices. It’s high time that we start looking beyond individual consumer choices, and come together to push for real policy change. While it is absolutely true that we have a part to play as consumers, our individual efforts will do little to halt the warming of the climate if government and big business continue to promote an energy-hungry economy.
The first step in shifting direction is to inform ourselves about the workings of the global economy—it is an issue that unites all of us working for change in the world, whether our concerns are primarily environmental, social or economic. Through this deep understanding of how globalization impacts our lives, we can join together to push for a new economy—one that is smaller in scale, more localized, and more in tune with the needs of people and the Earth.