‘Guilt card’ to force green behaviour on consumers?


With the world's natural resources depleting fast, the European Union and the United Nations are considering imposing limits on the consumption of anything from meat to air travel, plastics and fossil fuels in order to stop waste and pollution.

"Put down the steak knife, flip off lights, insulate homes, turn down the thermostat or air conditioner, avoid air travel and park the car as much as possible," said Angela Cropper, deputy executive director at the United Nations environment programme (UNEP).

Her advice sounds familiar and has been touted for years to incite people opt for 'greener' behaviour and "reduce humanity’s harm to ecosystems".

Cropper was speaking at the European Commission's annual 'Green Week' event in Brussels earlier this week, where she presented a 149-page UN report which listed "priority offenders" to nature.

The UN report was backed by EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, who stressed that taxation schemes were needed to change consumers' habits and move towards a more resource-efficient society.

Atop the list of "materials most responsible for environmental harm around the globe" sit agricultural goods, and particularly animal products, which are fed more than half of the world's crops, the Commission said, citing the UNEP report.

Other "priority offenders" include fossil fuel users, "especially electrical utilities and other energy-intensive industries, residential heating and transportation," the document continued.

Materials with the greatest environmental impact across their life-cycle include plastics, iron, steel and aluminium, the report said.

Consumer guilt

Addressing an EU Green Week session on Tuesday (1 June), entitled 'Pricing the Earth', Pavan Sukhdev, who led a UN study on the economics of nature (TEEB), stressed that the issue is not about pricing, but about recognising the value of nature.

"People confuse price with value," he said, arguing that value can be recognised without pricing.

Society places value on things it considers important, such as rainforests, as they deliver rain and new discoveries in medicine, Sukhdev added to illustrate his point. "So, it [price of nature] is a question of ethics, not of economics," he concluded.

Addressing a conference on measuring Europe's resource use earlier this week (EURACTIV 02/06/10), Friends of the Earth Europe Director Magda Stoczkiewicz suggested using the guilt card "to put resource efficiency on top of the business agenda," accompanied by "fiscal measures" to send companies "the right signals".

At the same event, Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen (European People's Party) suggested including compulsory resource-accounting, rather than just carbon-accounting, in companies' annual reports.

Meanwhile, UK MEP Chris Davies (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) stressed how "guilty" he felt about not having raised the issue of resource efficiency earlier in the European Parliament.

Willy De Backer, head of 'Greening Europe' at Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank, said "moral indignation" is necessary to change consumer behaviour and habits, and ultimately decrease humanity's impact on nature. 

Democracy and free markets: Enemies of nature?

Gilles Merrit, secretary-general of Friends of Europe, said that "our problems are linked to two issues we are most proud of: democracy and free markets".

He underlined that the world needs to find a way to reconcile the development of poor countries and resource scarcity. But he acknowledged that "we've got a real problem here," as rich countries would have to voluntarily consume less to allow poor ones to develop.

The EU's new strategy for sustainable growth and jobs, called 'Europe 2020', replaces the Lisbon Agenda, which was adopted in 2000.

One of the Europe 2020 strategy's flagship initiatives is resource efficiency.

Its stated objective is to "decouple economic growth from the use of resources, support the shift towards a low-carbon economy, increase the use of renewable energy sources, modernise our transport sector and promote energy efficiency".

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