Modern societies concerned about protecting their surroundings have embraced the “polluter pays” model.
As an environmental policy principle, polluter pays requires pollution costs to be borne by those who generate the pollution. This principle has been applied liberally in our societies, from regulations overseeing large industrial operations to municipal bylaws with prescribed fines for littering, dumping and motor vehicle idling.
A form of pollution
Not surprisingly, polluter pays has found its way into the global energy and climate change debates.
Many regard greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production and consumption of energy from fossil fuels as environmental pollution. (Some environmental activists use “pollution” often in their messages to conjure emotions and persuade people to join their causes.)
Application of the polluter pays principle in this situation dictates that those responsible for GHG emissions step up and bear the costs associated with them. If GHG emissions are pollution, who, then, are the polluters? It depends on who you ask.
The blame game
Some groups are quick to single out individual countries, based on GHG emissions volumes generated within their borders. Others point the finger at specific industrial sectors which generate significant GHG emissions. Some lay the blame squarely on corporations which produce energy from fossil fuel sources.
The hard, undeniable truth is that all of us, as fortunate members of the developed world, are complicit when it comes to GHG emissions. Up to 80 per cent of GHG emissions from each barrel of oil are produced at the point of consumption. This includes heating our homes, driving our cars and travelling about the planet by rail, jet, boat or any other mode which uses hydrocarbon-based fuels.
Even when we’re staying put, energy consumption from fossil fuel sources still comes into play when we consume fruit, vegetables and beer sourced from outside our communities. It’s also a factor when we snap up inexpensive electronics, clothing, housewares and goods often produced on other continents.
Many may be surprised to learn that the typical lifestyle in countries known for sizable GHG emissions profiles are significantly less carbon-intensive than in nations which emit significantly less total GHG emissions.
For example, annual emissions per person are lower in China than in either North America or Europe. Europeans produce 60 per cent more CO2 per capita than their Chinese counterparts, and Americans emit a whopping three times more.
Since we all contribute to GHG emissions and are therefore polluters, maybe it’s time to gain a deeper understanding of where our energy comes from and how we directly and indirectly consume energy. Perhaps paying our share of the pollution costs could be covered by participating in and contributing constructively to discussions about our energy future.
Thinking of one self as a polluter is unappealing and hard on the ego. But so should be the thought of inaction, given our climate change challenge and the tough choices we’re facing as we seek a path to a more sustainable energy