Saturday, December 16, 2006

Emissionary zeal

Should airline passengers be asked to pay extra to offset the environmental cost of carbon released into the atmosphere by their flights? I'm glad you asked me that.


London's The Telegraph raised the possibility. The story says:
At the annual convention of the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) in Marbella, Spain, this week, the group pledged to work alongside the Association of Independent Tour Operators and the Federation of Tour Operators to unveil a scheme early next year which would enable holidaymakers to offset their carbon emissions. It is a major step for the travel industry in recognising the need for holiday companies to take responsibility for their impact on the environment.
In that proposal, the industry groups are following the great business tradition of taking responsibility by asking someone other than themselves to pay.
Keith Richards, the head of consumer affairs at Abta [I thought it was about time the Stones guitarist decided on a career change] said: "The carbon offset scheme we will be launching aims to make a clear connection between the money invested and projects in the kind of destinations where people go on holiday. It is important that consumers can make that link as it will encourage more to use the scheme."
A tour operator called First Choice has introduced an "opt out" carbon offset program for all holidays it sells, the story says. ("Opt out" means that the carbon offset payment is theoretically voluntary, I guess; for the moment at least, you have the option of looking the booking agent in the eye and saying, "Give over, mate! I'm not paying over the odds to improve the environment for a bunch of wogs I'm rich enough to buy and sell 10 times over and who won't appreciate my generosity. Besides, I'm a good tipper, never fail to leave the maid 50p for every day me and my bride and six kids are at the resort.")

Where does the money from this "opt out" carbon offset scheme go? The story is a bit shy with details, but says the fee goes to the Travel Foundation, a charity that supports sustainable tourism projects around the world. The foundation, which is headquartered in Carbondale, Illinois, is -- no, no, just kidding about the location.

Not everyone in the travel industry is dead keen on the carbon offset idea.
(When did travel become an "industry"? When did travelers become "consumers" of their destinations?) The original "opt out" contribution would be one pound per adult and 50 pence per child on every holiday sold. The el cheapo airline easyJet objects that "the poor would be priced out of flying." One extra quid per person per holiday doesn't seem like it would deter many travelers, even among the backpacker market segment, but easyJet may have a point if their claim is that fees that start out with a feather-light touch have a way of growing and growing. Then again, do the poor have a sacred "right" to cheap flights? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of cut-rate air fares?


But you asked me what I think about this pay-per-emission lark. In principle, I agree with it. People and organizations should fork over for whatever costs they impose on the body politic, including the entirety of God's green earth. That was one of the refrains of the early years of the present environmental movement, circa 1970, in which I played a small supporting role. The prime example cited then was factories that released their noxious by-products into the air, rivers, or oceans, leaving the consequences to others -- health downgrades or the expense of cleaning up after the polluters. Insisting that corporations that fouled our collective nest pay the price for their acts was, and is, completely reasonable. Again, in principle.

Why do I keep banging on about "in principle"? Because there seems to be no way of enforcing the principle. I remember one guest, some famous investment manager, on the late Lou Rukeyser's TV program responding to a question about whether a new tax would scupper a company whose shares he was recommending. His reply was, "No corporation has ever paid a thin dime of tax, and none ever will." Meaning: no matter what tax is imposed on a corporation (and all its competitors in the same business), the corporation will just pass the cost on to the customer.

In the case we're discussing, then, we neeed to be clear that no "emissions tax" will be paid by airlines (who are in an inherently money losing business anyway, unless they come up with a really clever new model like JetBlue and easyJet, and even then their advantage is likely to be only temporary). So why shouldn't the beneficiary, the traveler, cough up for the damage done to the common environment by the turbine engines that propel him to his sun-drenched destination?

Several complicated issues are involved. The first thing to be asked is, do the carbon emissions from jets actually contribute to global warming? I have no reply because it is a scientific question whose answer has been hopelessly obscured by politics and junk science. A layman can't begin to derive a useful opinion from all the so-called experts who have to be suspected of findings that support their ideology.

Okay, in my sub-Socratic way, I'll assume for the purpose of discussion that carbon emissions from turbine engines are playing hell with the atmosphere at cruising altitudes and the polar ice caps are going to puddle and Manhattan will be obliterated. I'm totally on board with that. Wait, I was just joking, mostly.

So let's sock it to those bloody holidaymakers (British for vacationers) who get to their destination by airliner.

And while we're at it, let's have a carbon offset scheme for every soul who drives a car, which is practically all adults, except academic dweebs who live in high-rise urban slums and walk to their campus closets where they belt out screeds urging the bleeding of air passengers.

Not radical enough? I'm with you, friend. Tell me, who are the greatest emitters of carbon into the atmosphere anywhere? I'll bet you get it in one. Right. Everyone who breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. Yeah, you. Me. The human race. Oh, and all those other mammals.

Well, let's leave out the other mammals; environmentalists like them, and as a rule so do I. Let's just talk about the human population. Six billion and counting.

It is perfectly reasonable to impose carbon emissions costs on travelers. Just so long as we do the same for everyone who adds to the population.

In reality, of course, we do the exact opposite. We reward everyone who adds to the population. Or as the economists would say, if they had any sense about real-world issues, we allow breeders to externalize their costs. We subsidize breeding.


I know that many parents would jib at this, and I understand why: the cost of raising kids right has gone beyond the stratosphere. If you care about them at all, you don't want them going to public schools, and if you want to give your DNA a good push-off into the world, you send them to a high-ranking private college, leaving you $20,000 or more lighter every year. Still, through scholarships and other kinds of indirect subsidies, society will make the burden less than it would be otherwise.

That's only the very well-off we're talking about, though. If you are a poor illegal immigrant, society will pay you to have as many carbon-exhaling children as you want. Your parturition will take place in a public hospital at public expense; your issue will be immediately granted American citizenship, still (for how much longer is debatable) a valuable asset. The Social Work Establishment will immediately step in as co-parent, for your kids as well as for you.

As one said, externalizing the costs.

If there is one iron economic and sociological rule that I have never seen violated, it is this: when society (you, me, everyone who dreads the sight of a 1040 form) allows a person, organization, or company to do what it wants and pass the cost along to society, then there will be more of that behavior.

Let's charge everyone, equally, for the burden they place on our beloved planet.


1 comment:

Michaelcd said...

You're right. Governments day they care about the environment, and that 'taxes' are the best way to help it. Really?

Well, western governments favour immigration that will lead to massive increases in their populations. To discount the costs of this is lunacy.

And then there is globalization. Viewed as a universal good, it involves thousands of heavy duty ships crossing the globe. these ships cause far more pollution than a family flying to get some sun.

Governments say one thing, but frankly, they don't seem all that bothered about global warming. And until population receives a mention as a driver of global warming, I can't believe they care.

Still, I admit I'm going to be biased. I work in the aviation industry, albeit in an administrative role.