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But Will The Planet Notice? Why Only Economists – Not Recyclers – Can Stop Global Warming

bridges, vol. 32, December 2011 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Gernot Wagner

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Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and apparel company, ran an eye-catching, full-page ad in The New York Times the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year. The headline, “Don’t Buy this Jacket,” was above a photo of one of its products and some text that reminded us of its environmental footprint: 135 liters of water, 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. “Think twice before you buy anything.” The ad went viral.

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Gernot Wagner

I like the message. But then I would. I’m proud to say that my wife and I didn’t spend a penny on Black Friday. When we do spend money, we try to buy organic, local products. I don’t drive, don’t eat meat, and yes, my wife owns a partially recycled polyester fleece jacket from Patagonia.

Come to think of it, we’re just the sort of people Patagonia is targeting with its anti-advertising ad. I’m fine with that, and with being one with those do-gooder consumers who drive Priuses, eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, shop at Whole Foods, and generally pay a premium for going green.

The problem is that buying green and recycling won’t stop global warming. We can’t spend, or conserve, our way out of the current ecological crises. Sadly, such behavior may even be counterproductive.

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Why would some airlines first let you pay for your ticket and then offer you the choice of buying carbon offsets for your flight? It's not because they hope to make you feel bad about flying and do less of it. They want you to feel good about flying and do more of it, or at least choose them over their competitor. Call it the Patagonia effect.

But the real problem isn't businesses that try to do some good in the world while they make a buck. It's that it just isn't enough for us to act out of generous individual impulses. When it comes to climate change, overfishing, or many other kinds of pollution, we need fundamental, market-driven policy change to make a difference.

My flight from New York to visit my parents in Austria causes around one ton of carbon dioxide pollution, one way. That translates to something around $20 worth of damage in lost income down the line, which is my share of the incremental increase in global warming caused by my flight.

I could spend these $20 on carbon offsets - to have someone plant a tree or cover a methane pit on my behalf - and that would indeed be a good thing. But the planet won't notice the difference until we get every airline passenger to pay at least part of the cost of their pollution.

In fact, that's what the European Union is going to do starting January 1, 2012, for all flights within, to, and from its territory. The system isn't perfect. Airlines will receive plenty of free emissions allowances , which means that the price for the New York-Vienna flight will rise just $2, not the $20 or more that is the true cost of pollution. Still, the system covers a third of all global flights. The planet will surely notice.

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Plastic bags as part of the pollution problem

If the Patagonia ad leads to policy changes along these lines, sign me up. I'll buy, or not buy, their jackets forever more. But I strongly suspect that when it comes to changing human behavior en masse, the only reliable route is to start with the policy and end with the behavior.

That's what happened when Ireland wanted people to cut down on plastic bags in its environs. Asking people to voluntarily cut back didn't work. So in 2002, the country levied a 15-Eurocent PlasTax . Bag use decreased by over 90 percent - that's 1 billion bags a year.

In 2010, Washington, DC, instituted a 5-cent tax on all disposable bags, paper or plastic. Listen to the Potomac River breathing more easily with less plastic waste on its shores.

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Gernot Wagner is the author of But Will the Planet Notice?  He is an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund and teaches at Columbia University. He can be reached via www.maketheplanetnotice.com .

Reference:
Wagner, Gernot. But Will the Planet Notice?  New York: Hill & Wang /Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011.

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