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COVID, the Climate Crisis and the Fear of Commodity Taxes

Image: A protest sign held up in front of a crowd, reading ‘There are no jobs on a dead planet.’

First come, first served. This disorganised and brutish law may be logical when it comes to acquiring concert tickets or snatching up a slice of pizza from the school cafeteria. It’s fair, non-discriminatory, luck of the draw (to an extent). It’s just life. No one enjoys that feeling: staring at your laptop screen which failed to refresh at a critical moment. The number of available tickets left reads zero and Cinderella will not be attending the college ball. What if your friends all got tickets? Imagine them, sauntering through the moonlit quad with a cocktail in hand and a beaming smile as you sit there alone re-watching mind-numbing sitcoms on Netflix. You were left behind, cast aside whilst they bask in extravagance. You swallow your dissatisfaction, fain a smile as you flick through the photos. There’s nothing you can do. It was first come, first served. 

Why do I paint this scene? I want you to remember that sickening pang when you lose at what is partially a game of luck. Maybe you put all of your chips on a losing bet in a game of roulette. Maybe you applied to one of the top universities in the world, having met all of the grade requirements, and received a rejection letter. Maybe you were born in the wrong era, too far down the line to live the same comfortable lifestyle of your predecessors. All the natural resources which should surround you have been exhausted. It’s too hot, and the weather is stochastic and extreme. Refugees fight tooth and claw to enter habitable land. Armed forces gun them down. Self-defence. They’d drain your supplies. Your predecessors can’t be to blame for your misfortune though, despite doing exceedingly little to prevent it. Why would they be? It was first come, first served. Fair is fair. 

When we argue about our human rights, preach freedom of choice and refuse interventionist policies, we seem to forget a key emotion. Empathy.

When we argue about our human rights, preach freedom of choice and refuse interventionist policies, we seem to forget a key emotion. Empathy. Take COVID-19: thousands have died, thousands more will. What is a minor inconvenience to the young and healthy (wearing a mask, restricting the intermingling of social bubbles, self-isolating at the first sign of illness) is the thin defensive barricade which secures the lives of the vulnerable. It seems absurd to even posit a question about which ‘right’ should be prioritised: the right to live or the right to go bare-faced in confined public spaces. Though the population grows restless, it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority recognise and respect the triviality of their sacrifice (having to keep a 2-metre distance from the lady in front of you at Tesco) when compared to the sacrifice we would have to collectively accept in terms of a rising death toll should such restrictions be removed. The repercussions of failing to accept government policies at the time of a global pandemic are immediate and proximate. We submit to lockdowns, agree to isolate, allow Boris Johnson to dictate how many times a day it is acceptable to go for a jog. This pandemic is real, it’s right now and we want out. 

The same cannot be said about our response to the climate crisis, threatening the futures of our children but not our ability to go to the pub past 10pm. COVID-19 offers a unique example of how willing we are to bend to direct government intervention in our everyday lives. In the UK, this level of intervention has arguably not been experienced since WWII. So, there we have it, an example of our government acting fast (albeit, still a little too slowly) and imposing controversial new laws. As we become better versed in the art of surviving global disasters, perhaps our willingness to accept interventions which actively mitigate the impacts of climate change will now increase. This would be logical, since a warmer climate creates brilliant conditions for the continual outbreak of novel diseases (and it’s now abruptly clear that no one enjoys that).

As we become better versed in the art of surviving global disasters, perhaps our willingness to accept interventions which actively mitigate the impacts of climate change will now increase.

By 2050, our population is expected (under conservative estimations) to plateau at approximately 9 billion people. Unfortunately, this non-exponential population growth is not coupled with a similar curtail in demand for high energy commodities such as meat, dairy and refined grains. A decrease in our population growth rate is a double-edged sword, associated with an increase in per capita wealth and (as dictated by deeply entrenched human culture) a shift towards more extravagant diet choices. This intrinsic shift is described as ‘Bennett’s Law’. It is clear consumption patterns need to change. In the developed world, meat consumption is linked to a range of serious health problems, with The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying processed meat as carcinogenic. Diets high in processed meats show a correlation with susceptibility to colorectal cancer, with diets high in red meat also considered likely to increase cancer risk. 

Researchers are continually attempting to evaluate what governs our diet choice beyond basic biological requirements. Namely, there is now a focus upon human psychology and behaviour.  Dual process theory considers both conscious and non-conscious processes shaping our individual food preferences. I intend here to focus upon the conscious aspect, where researchers examine features of our environment which play into our rational decision making. Certification schemes and nutrition labelling for instance draw attention to the benefits of certain sustainable products over other irresponsibly sourced ones. Falling into this category of targeted interventions are commodity taxes, for example taxes on red meat or weighted taxes on produce based upon its carbon footprint. The aim of these taxes is to sculpt consumer choice based upon the assumption that individuals will be promoted to purchase less expensive (more sustainable) alternatives. Undoubtedly, as seen by backlash to the implementation of a sugar tax in the UK, commodity taxes are extremely controversial, restricting consumer purchasing power. 

The failure to impose restrictions can be considered akin to ‘killing with kindness’, exacerbating health issues and failing to relieve avoidable death.

Despite claims that such policies enhance inequalities and serve to reduce life quality of the poorest members of society, studies have shown that globally such action could lead to 510,000 avoided deaths when taxation from foods such as meat and dairy is fed back to reduce the price of staples such as vegetables and grains (Springman et al, 2017). This then brings into question whether or not governments have a responsibility to:

  1. Adopt a non-interventionist policy (as is so often endorsed by the US federal government) and in doing so promote sacrificing a national ethos of sustainability which in turn further influences its citizens to carry on unconcerned with global issues. This failure to impose restrictions can be considered akin to ‘killing with kindness’, exacerbating health issues and failing to relieve avoidable death.

  1. Promote commodity taxation which will inevitably restrict and dictate what certain groups in society are able to purchase and thus risk sacrificing the ethos of democracy and self-determination which most developed nations pride themselves upon. 

Of course, avoiding the debate of whether commodity taxation is unfair entirely, it is possible instead to consider a direct tax upon those who detract disproportionately from natural capital (the monetary vale attached to our global natural resources). The growing field of natural capital accounting makes use of viewing resources in monetary terms in order to promote sustainability in an economical way, further decoupling decreasing carbon from GDP. Since natural capital is exhausted in order to produce built capital, and built capital translates into wealth, it can be argued that those in a higher income bracket disproportionately impact upon the environment. Redistributing this funding could reduce food prices of less impactful commodities, and finances could be funnelled into schemes which train skilled farmers in developing countries or used to support reforestation and restoration work. Ultimately, such a scheme would require an unprecedented level of global cooperation. Based upon track record, it is unsurprising if the UN fails to inspire faith – carbon taxes have been on the backburner since the early 2000’s. It seems commodity taxes are a simpler alternative and able to generate immense amounts of revenue. 

It is then essential to ask: just how much right does our government have to control our actions in order to secure our futures?  

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  1. I think to a good degree the government does have this right, however at the same time it is important that the government listens to people’s concerns and actually helps people. While if the government want people to be more empathetic towards one another, the government should be empathetic toward us, which currently I don’t feel they are.

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