Climate Action and the True Cost of Everything

Climate Action and the True Cost of Everything

or: Why we do not need vacations, but a place to live.

This year has been full of incredible advancements and equally astonishing setbacks on a path toward a more climate-just future. In a time where national elections are coming up, some of the old narratives around sustainability are re-emerging more clearly than ever before. One topic that I find fascinating in this discussion: the fair distribution of the cost to protect our living habitat.

I believe there is a cost for everything, at least in the way our consumerist societies operate. We are just not used to paying the true price — the price that includes the environmental externalities of our consumption. Naturally, we don’t like to think about this when purchasing something. We are used to keeping it out of the way. We neglect the direct relationship between our everyday consumption and the environment that we know is there.

What mechanisms in the public discourse are behind this?

There is a recent example of a very effective strategy used to smother environmental discourse, usually used by conservatives, in the current German election campaign. It is a strategy that, at its very core, neglects the true cost of consumption and has the potential to shift any conversation immediately. Recently, in an interview, the Green Party's candidate, Annalena Baerbock, stated that flight travel should be more expensive. In addition, she said that short-distance flights should ultimately be replaced by an improved train infrastructure.

A bold statement and a historically risky one, too. The Green Party has been in deep water for pushing both progressive and for some provocative thoughts in the past. One notorious incident happened in 2013: the Green Party proposed that public canteens should have one (!) vegetarian day per week because vegetarian food is healthier for both humans and the environment. This mere recommendation resulted in an immediate outcry (today, we would call it shit storm) by the large parts of the press and a massive loss of support in the electorate. Time after time, we’ve seen that if something vaguely resembles or can be somehow reframed as a ban, it is politically dangerous — even suicidal.

When Baerbock made her statement about flight cost, something similar happened. Baerbock's proposal was picked up by the conservative candidate Armin Laschet. He took her larger goal — a world with less pollution — and made into a threat for the everyday man, saying: 70€ more per person for a flight would endanger the average Joe's dream of summer vacation on Germany's favorite destination — Mallorca. He cleverly chose a destination that you could not reach via train, and he connected it to the "working man's" dream that needs to be protected.

We do not need vacations; we need to protect our livelihood

A little context: A flight from Munich to Mallorca takes two hours and fifteen minutes. Although it's only a short distance, it's a catastrophe for the climate since a return flight emits an average of nearly 500 kilograms of CO2 per passenger. As agreed in the Paris Agreement, the climate footprint of a human needs to be below two tons on average now to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius (from pre-industrial levels) by the end of the century. This is the case for every human being on Earth. However, the average footprint in Germany is around 11 tons per year — more than five times the goal.

I see something here that almost everyone knows, but chooses to ignore because it is hard to bear. What is essential? We do not need vacations. We need a place to live. We need a sustainable livelihood. We live in a world where people believe they are rich because they can purchase stuff. However, they overlook that the important things are becoming more and more out of reach. We are conditioned  not to look this way, but:

Let's focus on the necessities instead of the luxuries

It can be simple. The true cost, including CO2 emissions, can be calculated and applied. Flights would need to be taxed higher and would therefore be x-times more expensive. It's an easy model, really. It's also 2021. Everyone knows by now that flying is one of the worst actions you can take for your carbon footprint. Everyone knows that a 25€ flight across Europe is nowhere near enough to cover the true environmental cost. It is also not a good deal for us as individuals in the long run. We are taking part in a game that gives us short-term gratification and a sense of freedom, but makes other people rich while destroying where we live.

In most things we buy, there is a hidden cost for environmental damage. It is there, but you do not pay for it when you buy it. Everybody pays for it later. Usually through taxes, reparations, health insurance costs, and so on. So the key question is: why do we struggle to accept that there is a true cost in the first place? Personal freedom is a contradiction to climate action only as long as we do not accept the obvious.

A fair way to make dreams come true

Once we have accepted the true cost, we can shift a time-wasting conversation to something fruitful. How can we come together and find ways to cover these costs? Looking past divisive, headline-heavy, and attention-fishing language, there are many interesting ways of refinancing this. There are ways to agree that there is a pretty high cost in certain things, and addressing these costs without burdening lower-income families through higher prices. Switzerland is one of the countries that has introduced a successful carbon fee and dividend system. Since 2008.

Imagine this: you want to fly. The price is quite high, maybe a couple of times higher than what it used to be in the past. However, since you are benefiting from the additional tax income directly, you could afford it. On the other hand, you’d be more incentivized to consider travel alternatives that are cheaper and therefore more environmentally friendly. You could book that flight, but it would not be a way of saving money by externalizing costs. You could book that flight, but you’d immediately be aware that there are other ways of spending this money. It’s your choice. And that’s what it’s all about. Let’s try to shift our focus and talk about the goal. What we aim for, what future we want.

Having a fair way to cover the true cost would enable a common understanding of the effects of individual decisions. It would be a fair way to make everyone's vacation dreams come true, with a mindest that protects what is most essential. And it would also help fight one of the biggest behavioral challenges concerning climate action, the Rebound Effect.

More on this in part III.


Illustration by Catarina Horn

Originally published at on July 6, 2021

Read the first article of this series here.

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