The Common Good
January-February 2000

Why I'm Walking to Work Tomorrow

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 2000

Putting a price on pollution.

I live three blocks from work. The good news is that I (probably) won’t be convicted of road-rage homicide. The bad news is that I drive to work. Admittedly, I live in a rough inner-city neighborhood where safety is a factor. However, if the world were equitable and just, the eco-cops would stick me with a ticket.

According to the new study "Who Owes Who?" by the UK-based development charity Christian Aid, industrialized countries should be charged with a "reckless use of fossil fuels" that has helped create catastrophic climate changes primarily and most severely affecting the world’s poor.

El Nino, Hurricane Mitch, drought in the Sudan, and floods in Bangladesh can no longer be considered strictly "acts of God"—mysterious forces imposed upon us without rhyme or reason. There is nothing mysterious about the 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide my Toyota produces from burning a gallon of gasoline. Or the fact that uncontrolled carbon dioxide emissions will double the amount of gas in the atmosphere by the end of the 21st century, raising the global temperature with it. Or that changing world temperatures brings weather-related disasters. A 10-year-old with a terrarium could figure this out.

Thirty years ago the worst carbon polluters were in the Eastern bloc and China. According to a report from the environmental think-tank Worldwatch, by 1997 only in the United States and India were carbon emissions still increasing. The economic collapse in Eastern and Central Europe—specifically the dismantling of the coal industry—brought the first slowdown in global carbon emissions. In its place, European nations have adopted improved energy efficiency standards and removed energy subsidies. China is the world’s second largest emitter. Even though China’s economy is growing, its carbon emissions are declining; again, partly due to cutting coal subsidies.

The United States is still the number one carbon polluter, using 12 times the sustainable amount of carbon per person. By contrast, Bangladesh uses less than one-tenth of the sustainable amount per person, while Tanzania uses less than one-twentieth per person. According to these numbers, I owe somebody somewhere.

Conveniently, the world’s "Highly Indebted Poor Countries" (HIPC) have figured out the bill. Thirteen trillion dollars should just cover the rich nations’ portion. Unless we would like to have a mutual release of debt—a jubilee, of sorts. If the IMF and World Bank forgive the HIPC countries conventional debt of about $200 billion, perhaps the HIPC countries might forgive our sky-high "carbon debt." At the very least we can acknowledge that most HIPC countries have extremely good "carbon credit."

IF WE ACCEPT the Earth Summit declarations from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Kyoto, Japan, that all governments should include environmental costs in their accounting and that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of the pollution, then we run into another problem. Rich countries can afford to pollute and poor ones can’t.

For example, President Clinton is all for taking responsibility for U.S. pollution. His solution is to buy out Russia’s "carbon credits," then cash them in to cover U.S. carbon debt. Nowhere is there an incentive to actually reduce waste.

How can we close the global eco-tax loopholes?

One way is through the "contraction and convergence" program. Agree to a worldwide binding limit on global emissions—contract our usage. Progressively move toward an equitable distribution of emission rights on a per capita basis—converge toward a balanced environmental "carbon budget."

Another is technology transfer. Rather than rich countries paying off the environmental debt in money, we can pay it off in environmentally sustainable technology.

Even Shell Oil admits that renewable energy sources could take more than 50 percent of the energy market by 2050—especially with the introduction of hydrogen fuel cells. Ethanol, produced from sugar cane, fuels half of the cars in Brazil. Wind power is the fastest growing sustainable global energy source. Danish scientists have mapped out a wind power strategy for providing 10 percent of the world’s electricity from wind within the next two decades. The states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas have sufficient wind capacity to provide electricity for the entire nation.

Rich countries can forgive the conventional debt of poor countries. "Carbon credit" countries can forgive the environmental debt of industrialized nations. But people of faith can set a higher standard for a global environmental ethic—"the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24)—so tread lightly. Tomorrow, I walk to work.

ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of Sojourners. "Who Owes Who?" can be found at www.christian-aid.org.uk.

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