With Rio+20 long gone, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me that most of the global populace has quickly and without bother discarded any knowledge of the convention, as well as the few and flimsy results that come of it, as though the whole thing was one pointless affair.
You could easily be fooled into thinking this is the case, considering so little of any worth, useful to effectively nobody matured from the talks, of which a large majority of the human race were crossing their fingers in the hope of a final resolution on all our woes and sufferings. Yes, there were a few pieces here and there, and the aptly-named ‘Future We Want’ paper was signed, but you only have to look a little further to see that anything with possible leanings towards a solid commitment and legal bindings within text was literally wiped away, replaced by ‘ifs’ and ‘taking steps towards’.
So coming from this, I felt it prudent to look back on one of the key agreements signed and ratified under the ancestor of this failed attempt at global democracy, the Rio 1992 Declaration, which actually managed to achieve what practically all other conventions that have come our way have failed to reproduce since - something worthwhile to the global community, which has stuck to this day and actually made an impact on ALL of our lives.
The ‘polluter pays’ principle is at its most basic, a very simple law pertaining to pollution from industry, whereby those who pollute must pay for the damage and degradation they bring upon the surrounding environment, whether it be through monetary forms (hard cash), incentives or compensation, effectively ‘making up’ for their shortsightedness.
This principle had one major point when it was conceived and globally upheld, namely that the inclusion of ‘pollution’ meant such things as fertilisers or insecticides, but has been rapidly adapted since to include greenhouse gases which pollute the atmosphere, for instance methane or CFCs. Due to this principle, and many others working in tandem, values of damaging pollutants in the environment has dropped significantly, and we have been able to see a tangible change in our way of life involving these materials.
However, we now have a new and exponentially more dangerous pollutant in our atmosphere, one which we cannot afford to ignore so blithely as we currently do. For the ‘polluter pays’ principle to really be brought up to the 21st century it must be upgraded to the next stage, to include carbon dioxide, our No.1 GHG. If we can slot CO2 into the category of ‘pollutants which must be paid for’ in a new revision of the principle, those dirty industries burning coal, oil and natural gas will rapidly begin to see the downsides. Due to these monopoly’s having their eyes set on economic profit and margins alone, to throw a tax on CO2 emissions into the mix, the sustainability movement may actually catch their attention and make them think.
This idea is not a new one, and many systems have tried to implement similar themes as our knowledge of carbon warming the atmosphere improves, under names like the EU Carbon Trading Scheme or the ‘Social Cost of Carbon’, both of which attempt to slap a price on [generally] a single ton of carbon, which can then be collected from those who pump it out. By making carbon into a marketable commodity, it is hoped that green technology will rapidly take over as the dominant force governing industry competition, as each tries to outdo the other in lowering their emission costs. Of course, this ideal world is forever an imagined one, as plenty of problems seed and grow throughout, too many for this article to discuss (maybe in a latter one?), but the fact of the matter is, we/re far from perfecting it.
The priority one issue with the want to combine carbon into the ‘polluter pays’ principle is an unfortunate reality of both the science and the skeptics. When it was initially introduced and taken on-board, the links between, for example, fertilisers and water pollution, or CFCs and the ozone layer was well known and comparatively crystal clear to those of carbon dioxide and the atmosphere. Although we know full-well that the more there is, the warmer the global temperature is, the links connecting us to global warming is still yet to be undeniably proven, and until done so, you can bet a good majority of the public will demand further testing.
Therefore, governments are either afraid to push forward and implement such measures to tax carbon harshly and snuff it out and face unwanted protestation from their citizens, or they’re simply biding time until that day comes when science proves once and for all that us dirty humans are ravaging our very own Garden of Eden. Due to this, as it stands, carbon tonnage prices are highly variable and average out far too low for effective taxing or FiTs to make much of a difference, and until they are raised dramatically, it’s going nowhere. One option is to price all countries carbon at a uniform level, meaning that leakage of dirty industry to lower-tax nations is tackled and the entire platform levelised.
When dealing with something so vast and accessible by literally every single human being, tree and animal on this planet, our atmosphere is a very difficult environment to police. When some view it as a ‘global commons’ to be used as we will, it is no surprise that those more unsavoury amongst us (not everyone mind you) see the idea of a restriction upon their emissions as a effective trampling of their right to use of the atmosphere.
Before we slip into ‘tragedy of the commons’ territory, I think I’ll wrap it up, by just stating how important an upgrade of the ‘polluter pays’ principle would be for all of us. By sticking a price on carbon, we can slowly whittle the dirtiest of energy sources out, whilst collecting money ripe for direct reinvestment into green tech and jobs, all the while cleaning up our already stricken environment and meeting development goals. When we start claiming rights to polluting our own doorstep, that is surely the point at which we realise how far we’ve come along a very one-way street, and the fork in the path is coming up increasingly soon.