Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Polluter pays?

After the COP15 was judged a failure by the European left, right and green movement alike, one culd easily fall into despair over the possibilities to reach international policy agreements. The Copenhagen accord failed to reach an agreement on anything more substantional than a vague promise to lower co2 emissions. Especially bitter was the question about who is responsible for the current high co2 levels. Is it the rich countries, who built their wealth on fossile fuels, without knowing, or is it the developing countries who argue for their right to grow richer, while knowingthat co2 levels must down.

It could be surprising, then , that the support for the principle "The polluter pays", which clearly defines a culprit, is almost unanimous. The left loves it, because it promises to tax multinationals. The right revers it, because it is ideologically pure liberalism - if a market system is supposed to work, big companies can not be allowed to pollute, and destroy the resources of smaller, equally important entrepeneurs. Those greens who avoid leaning left or right believe in it because a system that it targets the morally bad companies, rather than private entrepeneurship as such, is both more moral, an likely a more efficient way to achieve political change.

It is a pity that it doesn't work. Or at least has worked very poorly, so far. The Guardian earlier this week published findings from a study written by Trucost for the UN, due to be published in the summer. The study that the world's top firms cause staggering $2.2tn of environmental damage. "The figure equates to 6-7% of the companies' combined turnover, or an average of one-third of their profits, though some businesses would be much harder hit than others."

According to the Guardian, the report is likely to end up in proposals to end state subsidies to industries like agriculture, energy and transport. Personally, I think the consensus about "the Polluter pays" will end the minute specific companies are targeted with claims.

There are lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the possibility to ask companies for this kind of responsibility. The political world, especially the part of it dealing with social- and environmental issues, is not void of beautiful words, or good ideas. But when it comes down to action, changing the world is a hard thing to do. These $2.2tn of environmental damage that noone takes repsonsibility is an ample illustration of this fact.

Picture from the wikipedia commons

One could also get pessimistic by the fact, that taking one-third of profits from some of the worlds biggest companies would be harmful, to say the least for the word economy. As if it was not already in havoc. Just imagine the headlines in FT and the Economist, and the political response from the targeted companies.

But one could also see a hope in these numbers. Their merit is not that they work as legal claims, but that they can help educating society about the gravity of the matter. Something must change. Rather sooner than later.

I think we need a kind of truth commission, assesing how businesses have used and misused our common environment, so that we can find better ways to feed, transport and amuse ourselves. The better ways to grow food and transport people already exists, but how can we make "ecological" the only legal alternative? This must be an open and throughout discussion. But there should not be any reason to hide information about how business have been actually been done - therefore the guilt question must not be central. Criminal behavior can be forgiven, but not forgotten. What is really important is not what has been done up to now, but with what mindset the kids who are now in school will go into business fifteen years from now.

But forgivance comes with a demand - that the foul behavior is not repeated. No one should be allowed to destroy what belongs to everyone - therefore the principle about "The Polluter pays" has to be enacted with legal force in the very near future. Companies, states or individuals should face justice for environmental crimes. Some rules are simply more important than others. Environmental protection is one of those you just can not bend.

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