Global environmental taxation conference: Ottawa, Canada -- Part I - Lester Brown

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A conference on taxation strategies might seem a little dry to many readers, but environmental taxation is anything but. The opening speaker, Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, and author of "Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble", put it succinctly: "There are thousands of conferences around the world right now, but none of them more important than this conference".

Once a year, economists, lawyers, tax specialists, and policy analysts from around the world get together to look at the success or failure of different taxation strategies, or "instruments", to move societies towards more environmentally sustainable behaviours. This year, the conference was held for three days in the Chateau Laurier, in Ottawa.

As a correspondent for WorldChanging Canada, I was interested in picking up on any new or interesting approaches being mooted, and to talk to some of the speakers. Ways that governments use taxation for social ends are an overlooked way of changing people's behaviour, largely invisible, but probably one of the most effective. The message I heard over and over was that even with the best of environmental intentions, what people and societies respond to most is price signals. Since "we all depend on the market for guidance," Lester Brown said in his talk, the "key is to get the market to tell environmental truth."

Brown was very optimistic about the ability of societies to change rapidly, if it were widely felt that change is needed. Public opinion in the United States switched overnight after Pearl Harbour. Roosevelt mobilized car manufacturers, who had the largest industrial capability in the world at that time, to start producing very large amounts of equipment for shipment to Europe. When the manufacturers objected that it would be hard for them to meet their domestic car needs, Roosevelt said "you don't understand -- we're going to ban the sale of automobiles in the United States". Brown: "I mention this example because we re-structured the US industrial economy, not in a matter of decades, not in a matter of years, but in a matter of months, in 1942. If we did it then, we can do it now."

It turns out that it's just as possible to produce wind-turbines using car manufacturing facilities as it is to produce tanks. Imagine, he said, if we were to take some of those auto manufacturing plants that are already closing, and retool them to produce wind turbines: "Easy to do. An enormous source of energy waiting to be tapped."

How do we create the climate where companies would want to do that? "Doing this," Brown said, "is not a spectator sport." "Every one of us has a stake in the future of our civilization and making sure it survives". "Every one of us is going to have to be an activist: meeting our elected representatives, writing letters to our editors, organizing, helping the world understand why we have to move so quickly to restructure the world economy, why tax restructuring is the key".

What, one questioner asked, might be the (environmental) equivalent of a Pearl Harbour? Would he care to speculate? Let's say, Brown said, someone did a study that showed unequivocally that unless we cut carbon emissions by 70%, sea levels would rise by 23 feet. "Say." "So it could be a combination of events and new analyses."

How do you expect, another questioner asked, the oil industry to give up their $100 billion dollar profit in the name of fuel efficiency? Brown cited another example showing that things can, and do, change rapidly and sometimes unexpectedly, when people have the facts. "Let me answer in this way. If we had been meeting here 10 years ago, and I had said to you, I think in the United States, where most of the world's leading cigarette manufacturers are located, that the industry's going to cave. Not only are they going to cave, but they are going to agree to pay state governments past costs -- medicaid costs -- of treating smoking related illnesses to the tune of $251 billion dollars .... almost a thousand dollars for every person in the United States. If I had made that statement ten years ago, you would have said, great, where did you find this guy? It was so far beyond anything we could have imagined at that time." "After testifying for years ... that there was no link ... suddenly everybody knew that there was. .... I mention that because the cigarette lobby was the strongest lobby in Washington -- today it's the oil lobby, and they're making the same sort of argument." "But now most people are beginning to realize that something is happening to the climate. And at some point they will lose their credibility. And when they do, change will come very quickly. And we can help that process."