We Pay to Take Our Trash Away. Why Not Our CO2 Emissions?

If you liked it, then you should’ve put a carbon tax on it…

Why is carbon pricing the biggest piece of the climate solutions pie? Externalities, man.

In economics, an externality refers to a side effect of a commercial activity that isn’t reflected in the cost of the thing you’re buying. Externalities can be both negative (air pollution) and positive (education). Once you realize that we are not paying for the full cost of the negative things, it’s hard to think of anything else. The system is flawed.

We pay for all the other components of a good or service (labor, materials, marketing!). So why don’t we pay for the emissions produced? Especially when these emissions will literally hang over us forever. The only solution is to put a price on it. Charge industry and people for the pollution they emit.

Visualize World Grease

Fast fashion was my way into this concept. Seeing the distortions in the way we valued things was daunting. How does a pair of $14 jeans happen? Externalities, man. We aren’t paying the full costs—of pollution, of gross systemic inequality, of the fashion crime we are committing when we wear ill-fitting salmon jeans.

People always talk about the fact we can’t see climate change or emissions. Conveying the urgent importance of climate change is difficult when you can’t physically see the red line from rising emissions leading to a hurricane that then wreaks havoc. But you kind of can see emissions, or at least emissions-adjacent signifiers. I mean, you can see belching smoke stacks. You can see the swirls of gas that come off a powerboat, leaving trippy designs in their slick. You can see spills. And once you know that something produces emissions, it’s almost impossible not to visualize a metaphorical haze, some nightmarish vision of a CO2 cloud surrounding said object. It’s a dramatic representation to be sure, but we use visual mnemonics to cue us in every other aspect of life.

Most people believe in fairness. In the idea that you should pay for your share, for what you use. It makes intuitive sense that a person with a 3,000-square-foot home should pay more for heat than a person with a 1,000-square-foot home. If we learned that the person with the larger home paid exactly the same price for their heating as the person with the 1,000 square-foot house, we’d be appalled. And yet, without a price on emissions (like a carbon tax!) neither house pays for the pollution said heating causes. When we put a price on pollution, both houses pay for their fair share of emissions. And Mr. Big House (who do you think you are?) will be incentivized to conserve or make changes that will reduce the amount of pollution his much larger house creates. So. Much. Duh.

How to Buy a Papaya

When we don’t price externalities, the burden to buy responsibly is foisted onto the consumer. Which is an impossible task. How can we know which piece of fruit traveled farther, was heated less efficiently, grown more laboriously? The cognitive load of knowing what is best to buy, across all our purchasing categories, is impossible. With carbon labeling, the consumer has an immediate shorthand. It’s why I was so pleased to see that Unilever is going to label 70,000 of their products! Carbon labeling can help us visualize these emissions. I can see that the papaya I was going to buy burned up a hell of a lot of fossil fuels en route to my fruit plate, and make decisions accordingly.

In my work, I’ve been experimenting with ways to make emissions salient. If you can get people to visualize emissions, then the unfairness of the system will reveal itself.  Rothkoesque paintings? Infographics depicting the emissions of social influencers? I’m not sure. If you have ideas, let me know!

Hope you are happy and healthy,

P.S. I’m always curious to know what you think. This is my newsletter for the week of June 25, 2020, published in partnership with YES! Media You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com/.

This article was first published in Yes! Magazine. You can see the original article here.

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