words by Christina De La Rocha
Murderous tin-pot despots may not agree, but the purpose of government is to deliver order, infrastructure, and basic services so its citizens can live with each other and not just survive, but thrive. This means obvious things: roads, bridges, drinking water, sewage systems, electricity, public education, providing access to at least basic healthcare, and a regulated, stable banking system. But it also means setting standards and enforcing regulations that uphold the quality of foods, goods, and services sold to consumers, prevent the abuse of employees, and discourage the degradation of the environment we live in. This approach may ruffle libertarian feathers, but for centuries it has protected us not just as living, breathing bodies that can be cheated, broken, poisoned, and infected, but as stakeholders in businesses that, handicapped by the effort and expense of doing the right things, wouldn’t be able to compete with reckless corner cutters and slave wage payers.
But we’re overdue for more from the governments that we, as tax-payers, voters, and (generally) law-abiding citizens, have contracted to manage our societies. We’re fast approaching the point where our needs for food, space, and energy have stripped Earth’s reserves bare. Meanwhile, global warming-driven climate change, caused by our combustion of fossil fuels and slash-and-burn domestication of the landscape, crescendos increasingly toward catastrophe.
We, as individual consumers cannot solve this problem of greenhouse gas emissions, no matter how severely we shrink our lives. We could buy less, fly less, eat less meat, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese, turn down the thermostat, and fork out crazy sums for a hybrid or an electric car we might not be able to recharge anywhere.
But have you tried it?
It’s exhausting, and I don’t just mean the self-denial. We need to cycle through a stream of cars, smartphones, laptops, plastic-wrapped groceries, new shoes and clothes, and excessive commuting just to keep ourselves employed, our families fed, and our kids in school because that’s how our societies are structured. Live in Rome and, even if you refuse to do as Romans do, you’re going to end up living as Romans live, living in the local housing and heating (or cooling) it the same way everyone else does, using local modes of transport, buying what foods and clothes are locally available, and working the types of jobs there are for Romans to do.
For the most part, only entities as big as governments can reshape national infrastructures so that people can live modern lives with smaller environmental side effects.
Here is a case in point. In 2014, the average emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere per person was 4.6 metric tons in France, 6.5 metric tons in the United Kingdom, 8.9 metric tons in Germany and 16.5 metric tons in the USA, values that range from the already unsustainable global average to the utterly catastrophic when done by several hundred million people. Those are big differences. Where do they come from and what do they mean? For instance, is life 16.5/4.6 = 3.6 times better in America than in France?
Well, no, of course not, not even by official measures. According to the World Bank in 2018, the GDP per person (adjusted for purchasing power parity, aka PPP) was $59 K in the US and $43 K in France, which is officially only a 1.4 times higher (as in 40% greater) standard of living. But literally this just means purchasing power, which is something that can be (more or less) quantified, not quality of life, which is harder to get a handle on. Except that it’s starting to become a truth universally accepted that once our basic needs are met, it’s far from given that our quality of life will increase with increasing purchasing power. In other words, are you going to be the one to inform the French that Americans are 40% happier than they are because Americans can purchase 40% more goods and services?
I’ve lived there and in Britain, and in Germany, and in the USA and I can most certainly say that the quality of life isn’t 3.6 times better in America than in France. Nor does your average American buy 2.5 times as much as the average Brit (put in terms of GDP PPP per capita, it’s 1.3 times as much). And, although they love to believe otherwise, your average German does not engage in 1.85 times environmentally more friendly behaviors than your average American (although they’re enormous fans of composting). So why are people in America producing so much more global warming-driving CO2 per person than the French, the British, and the Germans?
I know my people. Right now, they’re thinking American economic powerhouse, yeah! But the truth is just that we’re embarrassingly carbon-inefficient. For every ton of carbon dioxide we emit, we produce $2291 (in US dollars) of gross domestic product (GDP) compared to $3621 by Germany, $4284 by the UK, and $5928 by France. The comparison is similar if PPP-adjusted GDP is used.
Yes, that’s right. A country that we may or may not have officially diplomatically accused of not having a word for entrepreneur is kicking our butts in terms of standard of living per molecule of CO2. Why? Not because their citizens are environmental saints, but because, like the British and the German government, the French government has been taking action to decrease its people’s need to burn fossil fuels to live as well as they do.
In France, this more or less sums up to nuclear power, a ball the French government picked up and ran with starting in the 1970s to avoid dependence on foreign energy supplies. Today, more than 70% of the electricity used in France is produced in nuclear power plants. Nuclear instead of coal-fired power plants are not without their (major) drawbacks, but massive emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere is not among them. Ergo, the French can live lives nearly as high up on the per capita GDP scale as Americans while adding a whole lot less CO2 to the atmosphere.
But there’s even more to the story than that in terms of the lower-carbon lifestyle support Germans, the British, and the French receive from their governments. When someone in these countries commutes to work or wants to take a trip, they don’t have to drive (reported as 102 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer) or fly (244 g CO2/km). Because their government has heavily invested in creating and maintaining a useful rail network, they can fairly conveniently take a fairly fast train (28 g CO2/km). And if this someone does choose to drive, thanks to the stricter fuel efficiency standards set by the various European governments, the new passenger cars on the market in Europe produce, under real world driving conditions, 169 g CO2/km compared to the 206 g CO2/km of new passenger cars sold in the USA. When literally a short scale trillion passenger kilometers are traveled each year, for example, in Germany alone, these tens to hundreds of grams per kilometer differences in emissions add up to an enormity of CO2 that could have been emitted in that pursuit of health, happiness, and economic prosperity but wasn’t.
The governments of Europe have also been encouraging nationwide shifts toward low- to no-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar and energy efficient houses, heating systems, and lightbulbs. In the UK, there’s even talk of banning newly built housing from the gas supply grid, forcing them to be heated (or cooled) instead by heat pumps or other low-CO2 emitting technologies.
It may turn out to be too little, too late, or it may buy us the time we need to switch over to net zero emissions economies in time to spare the world exceptionally catastrophic climate change. But, governments of Europe, I salute your effort to help your citizens pack fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Now, US government of mine, tell me, what are you doing to help me emit less CO2 without having to live like a cavewoman watching the people of the fast-paced and highly energetic modern society pass her by?