John Rapley is a political economist at the University of Cambridge and the author of Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong.
In my college days, I had a friend who could polish off a dozen doughnuts at a go. Afterward, he’d order a Diet Coke, whereupon the counter attendant invariably told him he was wasting his time; the caloric damage had already been done.
Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a bombshell report that declared “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, human influence on the climate system is clear, and limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” The report comes at a time when governments are making bold pledges to create sustainable growth, investors are pushing firms to phase out fossil fuels, and some consumers are rushing to substitute “green” products such as electrical vehicles for the dirty old technology.
Unfortunately, most of this amounts to the climate equivalent of capping a 3,000-calorie binge with a diet drink. That humble soda reveals why technology can’t save us from a system overload. The creation of artificial sweeteners improved the efficiency of flavouring, allowing us to produce more or less the same taste but with fewer calories. Electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla do the same thing for car engines: same energy, less carbon.
Even before the invention of electric vehicles, automobile efficiency had been improving at a terrific pace. Anyone familiar with vintage cars recalls the “boats” from the fifties that got a dozen or so miles to the gallon. Today, even SUVs can get a good four times that. So it goes for all manner of other technologies, from refrigerators to televisions, their relentless gains in efficiency being what gives tech entrepreneurs and politicians the faith that we can beat climate change with ingenuity.
Except we aren’t. For all those improvements, our carbon emissions have only gone up. It’s not the fault of technology, which has been doing a good job of reducing our waste. It’s the fault of the users – of us. As our cars used less fuel, that left more for other purposes. Like flying, for instance. We’ve been doing it with abandon, the number of international travellers, the vast majority of them from Western countries, doubling each decade. Back in the days of clunky cars, hardly anyone flew abroad. Today, many of us think nothing of hopping a plane across the world for a week or two in an Airbnb.
Just as some of us use diet soda as a balm – one that enables us to push off the guilt of overeating – so too do we use “sustainable” technologies to paper over our waste. Take recycling, for instance. In theory, putting stuff back into the product cycle reduces our waste. In practice, the opposite often happens. Research shows that recycling can actually lead people to buy more stuff, because they feel they’re no longer producing waste.
Which brings us to Tesla.
Don’t get me wrong: Since they reduce carbon emissions, the vehicles themselves are a good thing. The problem? Well, let’s picture the stereotypical Tesla buyer, he of the marketing literature: a virtuous and healthful middle-aged man who scoffs at the climate destruction wrought by the ignorant, climate-denying Trump voter, the sort of voter who’ll drive a gas-guzzling pickup to a rally to hear the former president mock global warming. What our Tesla buyer doesn’t know, though, is that of the two, he’s the one doing more harm to the climate.
That’s because while the typical pickup driver has an income that hovers around the median, the typical Tesla owner has an income twice the average – and the strongest predictor of a person’s carbon emissions isn’t what he buys, but what he spends.
The simple fact is that being rich is bad for the environment. Statistically in the 1 per cent, Tesla owners belong to a global elite who produce a sixth of the planet’s carbon and half of its flying emissions. Lest we get too righteous about their profligacy, though, they’re merely charting the way for the rest of us. Although we in the West comprise less than a fifth of humanity, we produce more than two-thirds of its carbon emissions.
George Carlin nailed it long ago when he said humans had no business trying to save the planet – Earth preceded us, it’ll survive us. Instead, the race to tackle climate change is about saving ourselves, by preserving an environment that keeps the planet habitable for our descendants. On current trends, prospects look bleak. This summer, amid brutal heat waves in the West and devastating floods in Europe, and one climatologist noting that we’ve now literally reached the hell-and-high-water stage of climate change, we’re trying to “return to normal.” Indeed, this summer, as we got back on the road and into the air, our fuel consumption set new records.
If technology won’t reduce our carbon emissions, then, what will? The good news is that we know the answer. Recently, for example, the planet experienced the largest drop in greenhouse-gas emissions since the Second World War and it resulted from, wait for it, the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s not rocket science. We’ve known a long time that recessions reduce carbon emissions. But rather than retain the kind of lifestyle changes we began experimenting with then, too many of us persist in the delusion that buying and investing “green” will save us from hell on Earth as we resume old ways, much as medieval Europeans imagined that buying indulgences saved them from hell in the afterlife. Technology can facilitate our transition to a more sustainable way of life – think how video calls enabled us to slash travel and commuting during the pandemic. However, it can’t actually substitute for that change.
As Canadians head to the polls, they might want to contemplate the existential choice they now face. Either we can continue living in the style to which we’ve grown accustomed, or we can bequeath a planet to our descendants that is habitable. Those of us who have children in our lives might consider having that conversation – of telling them, openly and frankly, which option we’ve decided on.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.