Dave Deruytter suggests we have to make some difficult decisions in terms of the economy to save the planet.
We have all ordered a product online, at least once. More often we bought it on a foreign website, rather than on a local one. The product itself was probably produced in Asia, shipped to the foreign country, put in a large warehouse there, before a ‘man in a diesel van’ took on the delivery of the package to us in Belgium. Agreed, if we would have bought the product in a shop nearby, the ecological footprint would probably not have been much smaller. That product would also have been produced in Asia, but maybe shipped directly to Belgium, avoiding a second cross border transportation.
Can’t we produce more products locally? The raw materials would then have to be shipped here, as Belgium does not have any iron ore, or oil, or any of other typical raw materials needed. Still, as a large share of the production machinery used worldwide is produced in Germany, an important part of the production chain would come from a bordering country. That would be an improvement.
Could 3D printers be an even better solution? The ingredients that those printers use for production sometimes also come from far away. Still, if the 3D printers are produced in Belgium or in a neighbouring country, again the ecological footprint should be smaller.
Why is this not happening? Labour cost is very high in the EU – so high that producing a product in a plant thousands of kilometres away and shipping it from there is cheaper than producing it locally. Also, the EU has strict ecological requirements for factories on its soil. That is not the case in many of those low-cost production countries. Furthermore, by no longer producing much locally in the EU for decades now, our workers have lost the necessary skills and experience to produce many of the products that are hot buys today, such as smartphones for example.
If we would make shipping, or transport in general, much more expensive, that should have an effect. A carbon tax for example, which the polluter pays. But we should go further and ban products produced in a non-ecological way from ever entering the EU. Thirdly, we should start producing more locally again in the EU. And education should help us prepare the workers needed to do so, with the right knowledge and skills which would eventually have an impact on the overall economy.
Of course, we are not efficiently using our ‘polluting’ products today either. Our cars stand idle very often. When our children leave home, we have rooms to spare. Our old smartphones are put away in a cupboard. The widespread sharing of houses (Airbnb) and cars (Uber), instead of all of us owning at least one of each, would have another big positive effect on the climate. The circular economy should grow much bigger. From scrap material reuse, our old smartphones for example, to clothing getting a second or even a third life.
The world would not necessarily be a much better place on the climate side, if all the cars were simply replaced by electric ones. At least we would lack electricity. For food, local produce should always be favoured over foreign produce. It typically has a smaller ecological footprint than food coming from far away, transported by heavy diesel trucks. Do we really need strawberries in winter? Here again, a tax on transport could do the trick in changing habits.
We should not be afraid of prices rising as a consequence of the above measures. Inflation has been very low for years and it would good for it to come back a bit, certainly if it is for such a good cause.
Needless to say, all of the above would have a big impact on the current composition of the economy and GDP of all our countries. Fewer houses and fewer cars means fewer production machines to make them, less financing, less insurance. That would have to be compensated with other elements in the service industry. The same goes for when we would want to reduce private travel, by car or by plane.
In order not to shock the system too much and so create a deep worldwide economic crisis, good planning and monitoring of the economy, plus ever more stimulation of new economic activities, should be pursued. Creating an innovation culture, starting at school, is key to getting there. Also, employees and workers of companies should be stimulated to keep on learning and innovating.
All of this is easier said than done. But, to wait for the earth to crumble under our pollution is not an option. Anyhow, it is clear by now that air pollution leads to more deaths worldwide than smoking cigarettes or other smokeware does.
In conclusion, the options are becoming clear on how we can tackle sustainability structurally, but there is still a lot of work on to be done to steer the economy in the right direction through innovation and education, without creating a worldwide economic crisis.
We should not be afraid of urging the developing economies from becoming greener too. Anyway, by exporting our ecological problems to them, we do not advance globally. Thus, an internationally coordinated action is required to save the planet and in consequence save ourselves. There is no plan B and certainly no planet B.