I’m not one to give the business sector too much credit for its social or environmental awareness. If companies are doing something that looks good for society without an obvious cash benefit for them, my guess is usually that they’re doing it because it will look good and they need to improve their public image.
So, when I see Amazon launching a plan to be carbon-neutral by 2040, my first guess is that the move is aimed at improving its battered public image as a tech giant. When I hear Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claim that “we’ve been in the middle of the herd on this issue, and we want to move to the forefront”, my guess is that he wants to avoid new regulation.
Other US brands – among them Nike, Walmart, Hugo Boss and Best Buy – are also pledging to cut emissions. My first impulse is that they’re aiming to win kudos with consumers in a tough retail environment.
But then I look around at the average person’s behaviour, and it occurs to me that retailers are taking a lot more action than the average developed-world consumer.
We just won’t pay
Take the idea of a carbon tax. It’s a highly effective measure to lower carbon dioxide emissions more quickly, using the power of markets, at a cost most people would barely notice. Yet it can’t win support from a substantial majority of the population in countries like Australia or the US.
As a group, we turn out to be unwilling to make changes that would put even a tiny dent in our rising standard of living.
In opinion polls, people express concern about the fate of the environment. A US Gallup poll in March 2019, for instance, found 61% of people thought the US government was doing too little to protect the country’s environment.
But there’s little evidence we are willing to pay even a small amount to fix it.
Our spending shows our feelings
I could cite polling data all day about this. I could also cite the proportion of air travellers who choose to offset their carbon emissions (around 10%).
But it occurs to me that there’s an even simpler way for anyone to gauge what’s going on. Walk out to your front gate and take a look at the street.
What do you see?
Almost certainly, you see SUVs and trucks – big, inefficient fat-tyred ‘utility vehicles’, from the Toyota Hilux to the Mazda CX-5, designed to carry loads most people rarely carry, in off-road conditions most people rarely face. Tall and heavy, they expend excess energy pushing more air out of the way, pushing off-road tyres across normal bitumen, and carrying around a lot of frame.
The rising popularity of SUVs and small trucks over the past 30 years has come mostly at the expense of lighter, nimbler, more space-efficient sedans, hatchbacks and wagons. Don’t blame the car industry; it was planning for still lighter vehicles and was as surprised as anyone when buyers started clamouring for bigger, heavier four-wheel drives. It became clear that big and powerful sold much better than light and efficient. Now carmakers worry much less about fuel efficiency – and Ford in the US has stopped making sedans entirely.
This was a vote on people’s desire to cut their emissions. And we chose, overwhelmingly, not to cut as much as we could. We chose, on average, less efficient vehicles. Many of us are happy to pay much higher fuel bills and cop lower safety levels in order to sit higher and surround ourselves with more metal.
We don’t want to act
We may tell pollsters that we want governments and corporations to pay more heed to our environmental concerns.
But a glance at the road shows what we, as a group, are willing to give up in order to protect the environment.