Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
Shared responsibility

McDonald's in Belgium is currently running an ad campaign for trash bins. You might find that strange. What interest would a fast food chain have in promoting its trash bins? I imagine what happened was that some people buy a burger, and then throw the wrapper on the street. With the trash being both concentrated around the burger restaurants *and* being marked McDonald's, some people will blame the company for the trash problem. This is an example of shared responsibility: Obviously McDonald's itself is not throwing burger wrappers on the street, so some responsibility has to lie with the individual customers who currently aren't using the trash bins. But as McDonald's provides the wrappers a part of the responsibility lies with them as well.

Society appears to have a problem understanding the concept of shared responsibility. Depending the political leaning of a commenter, he might *either* blame McDonald's *or* "the youth of today" for the wrapper trash on the street. It is rare that somebody acknowledges that both parties somehow share the blame and the responsibility. With one-sided blaming often come one-sided solutions to the problems, which aren't really all that adequate, because they ignore half of the problem.

The biggest example of this is global warming. Many people blame oil companies for global warming. But the simple scientific fact is that a jerry can of petrol by itself emits no carbon dioxide at all, and a comparatively little amount of CO2 was produced making it. Over 90% of the carbon dioxide production happens the moment that somebody takes that petrol, puts it in his tank, and uses it to drive somewhere. In the climate change jargon that is known as "scope 3 emissions", the emissions that not a company itself does, but their customers do with their product.

Oil companies have some responsibility for their scope 3 emissions. But it is easy to see that for example car companies aren't exactly innocent in this either. And it is also obvious that the final customer, the person driving the car and producing the CO2 has some share of the responsibility as well; for example he could be driving a Hummer, or he could be driving a Prius, which makes a huge difference in emissions for the same distance driven.

The inability to admit shared responsibility leads to absolutely idiotic proposals on how to solve the problem: Sure, let's make petrol illegal, confiscate all the money of oil companies, and buy electric cars for everybody with the cash! If you did that, you'd notice that we don't have enough electricity to run all those electric cars. And most of the electricity that we do have is produced by burning fossil fuels. If you bought an electric car in a country that burns coal to make electricity, e.g. Germany, you are possibly emitting more carbon dioxide than a diesel car.

Pointing fingers and blaming somebody else for the problem is always the easiest path, but it doesn't actually lead anywhere. Climate change is a problem that needs a very complex system of many solutions, which includes the necessity of not just companies acting, but also consumers adjusting their behavior. Your holiday trip to Thailand? You really want to blame the travel agency, the airline company, or the oil company providing the jet fuel for the huge emissions that causes? Some decisions are clearly taken by the end consumer, and companies have a tendency to react to market demand. You and me aren't solely responsible for climate change, but we shouldn't forget that we are part of the problem.

The German ministry for environment did stats on that:

And a.) Over the course of its life the e-car creates 160g/km vs 290g/km for the diesel
And b.) The largest chunk of emission for electric cars is created during production.

So still not perfect, but better.
Interesting link, thank you! I see that they assume that the carbon emissions from loading the car with the electricity mix in the network is going to fall by half from 2020 to 2030. Which assumes that there will be more green electricity in the network by then, and less coal. Perversely, the more electrical cars people will buy until then, the more likely it becomes that those coal power plants will still be around.
Not to mention that the Ukraine war is putting a spanner in the works by reducing the availability of gas.
While I agree with you in principal in practice if we expect consumers to change their behaviors the planet is doomed. People often don't care about issues until they or someone they care about are affected.

At the end of the day it's on governments to provide regulations to encourage behavior that is good for society at large.
You know, such Bill Maher-esque calls for personal responsibility always rub me the wrong way, because more often than not they are used to deflect responsibility away from those that could actually make a change. But I should not assume that this argument is being made in bad faith, just because I have heard a lot of bad faith actors making the same argument.

What it boils down to, as far as I understand it, is a vague hope that maybe, given the right incentives from consumer behavior, the free market will fix climate change. In my opinion, it will not. In fact, I am pretty sure it cannot.

Let's look at individual behavior as a driver for change. It would be easiest to just say "tragedy of the commons" and be done with the topic, but let me be just a little more self-centered and look at my situation:
I do not own a car. This fact has yet to bring the petrol industry to its knees. They are, inexplicably, somehow chugging along just fine without me. And me not owning a car is only possible because I live in a country that has reasonable zoning, has not yet gutted its public transport, and both my home and place of work are connected to the transport grid. If I lived in a worse developed country (like, say, the USA), or if I had to move to the countryside for health or financial reasons, or if my job required me to travel to more remote areas, et cetera, I simply would not have the freedom to choose not to drive a car. It would be required of me, to remain a participating member of society, as it is required of quite a lot of people. Car travel has become so central in how our society is structured that telling people to just not drive is honestly pretty ridiculous. And telling people that they share in the blame for the current situation for the actions that they are structurally coerced into is kind of messed up: "Look what the thing we made you do has created, this is your fault."

So, what about the petrol industry as a potential source for a solution? Well, the problem here is that anything they could do to actually produce a positive change for the whole climate problem would also reduce their profits. And in this shareholder-oriented wannabe-free-market nightmare world we have created for ourselves, "less profitable" is often synonymous with "impossible." (The engineered failure of E15 fuel is a nice illustration of this principle in action.) So, I don't expect anything good to come from that sector.

Which gets us to the government. Now, am I suggesting that they should "make petrol illegal, confiscate all the money of oil companies, and buy electric cars for everybody with the cash?" No, because that is a silly strawman of an idea. But they could, for example, seriously expand public transport while implementing a rising tax on either petrol or CO2. Now, it would have to be gradual, because sudden shocks to a complex system are often Badâ„¢, but this could eventually result in a situation where people are both incentivized to drive less and have the option not to drive, which nicely circumvents both the earlier tragedy of the commons and systemic coercion. Would this single-handedly solve the climate problem? No. But please keep in mind this is only meant as an example of a single policy that could contribute to a solution.

So, yeah, "this situation is the result of the aggregate of all our individual decisions" is technically true. But claiming that therefore the solution should be driven by a change in these individual decisions and not by structural changes, while ignoring how individual decisions themselves are driven by structural circumstances, is a bit of a fallacy in my eyes.
But they could, for example, seriously expand public transport while implementing a rising tax on either petrol or CO2.

I am totally in favor of solutions like this, because this shares the burden of the cost among different actors, both companies and individuals.

The one thing I would consider, however, is whether a CO2 tax shouldn't be somewhat progressive, taxing some "essential" CO2 emissions less, and some "voluntary" CO2 emissions more. Energy poverty already exists today, and there are people in first world countries freezing to death in their homes every year because they can't afford heating. I would tax that less per ton of CO2 than let's say the aforementioned holiday plane travel to Thailand.
I would honestly prefer some mechanism addressing wealth inequality as a solution to energy poverty, but I don't think bringing the viability of e.g. universal basic income into this discussion is going to make it any simpler, so pretend I didn't say that. So, yes, obviously we want to avoid negative side effects from policies aimed at the climate crisis, and in the short term a variable tax rate on CO2 depending on the purpose is definitely worthy of consideration in that respect. But I would also like to keep in mind that the long term goal has to be net zero CO2 emissions, which will require some sort of massive systemic overhaul. So, sure, keeping people from freezing to death is definitely something we cannot stop doing, but we need to find a way to eventually decouple it from fossil fuel consumption.

> I am totally in favor of solutions like this, because this shares the burden of the cost among different actors, both companies and individuals.
I don't know how much of the cost would actually land on the companies, since they are most likely going to just pass it on to the consumer. I see this more as a driver to change consumer behavior, which then affects the companies, forcing a change they are unable to make on their own.
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