Blending green concerns into market economy

GERMAN environment minister Klaus Topfer has come under fire for his tough green laws such as the one against packaging. Environmental ministries, he says, are like end-of-the-pipe treatment plants: They are responsible for cleaning up the mess made by other ministries. Topfer, when he spoke to Down To Earth recently in Delhi, was a mixture of confidence and disillusionment. He clearly believes that technology and regulation can bring rampant consumerism to its knees, but he also admits the lifestyle changes needed in the North "are even more difficult than I thought".

 
By Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Hasn't Rio clearly shown we were living under an illusion when we thought environmental concerns would make a difference in the world power structure. Why should things change now?
We have new developments stemming from a deteriorating economic position worldwide. There is a growing trend towards nationalism and fundamentalism that threatens the peace dividend gained at the end of the Cold War. We have to invest this peace dividend in the struggle against nationalism and chauvinism.

It is necessary to strengthen the belief that nobody can live with only material aims. The changes needed in the lifestyles in the North are even more difficult than I thought. The situation is getting increasingly unbalanced, with growth of religious bigotry on one side and unwanted material-oriented aims on the other. To overcome this, there must be a group of people and institutions that act like the conscience of the world.

Nonetheless, I was convinced that Rio opened the eyes of many people. If you ask me what the most important result of Rio was, I believe it is the impetus and position given to NGOs worldwide.

One thing worrying about Rio was nobody looked for serious answers. Developing countries wanted more aid and industrialised countries said they'd see what they could do about it. Why was there was no message on how to manage the earth?
They all listened to the message and echoed the message. But the question is whether they could integrate this message with the need for behavioural change. This was not done. I tell my fellow citizens they have something like a welfare life. But we are betraying ourselves and future generations. By subsidising our welfare today, we are increasing costs for coming generations. We do not have full-cost planning.

But isn't Germany one of the leaders in changing production patterns?
We try to do something and not just pay lip service. But this is not easy. The economic situation is difficult now. As a former colleague from USA told me, "It is not very good to be the environment minister during a recession."

... particularly in an election year...
I am not too sure about that. I was quite glad to have an election because everybody is suddenly aware that you cannot get elected if you do not have a good environmental profile.

I believe an ecological and social market economy is a must for the future. The market by itself will never change -- we must have a clear framework of regulations and incentives. We have started this with some positive results. We are also trying to impose an energy tax and raise fuel prices.

Despite public pressure, why have you not been able to get a carbon tax?
We have taken some steps, but we are now waiting for the new US administration to act.

What do you think of the new administration?
It's high time they consider integrating certain necessities in policies. "Read my lips: No new taxes" can be a good device, but there must be some change. A good environment policy is an economic necessity. Low energy prices could make the national automobile industry uncompetitive in the export market, which wants more efficient cars. Do you know any country that imports American cars? I am very critical of myself for not having forced our automobile industry to make smaller, fuel-efficient cars.

Will green shopping be a lasting force, particularly in the face of recession? Will people prefer to buy products that are environmentally bad but cheap?
I believe there is a stable awareness of environmental problems in my country. We can prove that environmentally friendly products and processes are not more expensive. Although there are high initial costs, there are options, too. For instance, you can increase taxes on leaded petrol and decrease them for unleaded petrol.

I am criticised at home for my packaging law, which requires reduction of packaging material and thereby increases consumer prices. But these are not increases in prices, only a substitution of waste-handling costs that would otherwise be borne by the economy. The environment minister does not create costs, he only reallocates them. I do believe that despite the recession, the younger generation understands the need to save the environment.

But the situation is different for developing countries. Even if the Germans reduce consumption levels, they can survive. I don't see poverty forcing the overuse of the environment.

Poverty may not force you to overuse the environment, but wouldn't greed?
But what is overconsumption? If air travel prices are raised to account for environment costs, Germans may stop visiting the Maldives and go to a place close by. I might be criticised by the Maldives, which looks for our tourism. So overconsumption is a very difficult word.

You believe combining the market and regulation can bring about environment reforms within the economy. But how would you do it between rich and poor nations? If Germany uses a larger share of the atmosphere than India, shouldn't Germany pay for this use?
Yes, of course. We tried to start this process at the climate convention, but we could not get very far. My government took the lead by agreeing to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 per cent. Perhaps 25-30 per cent is not enough, looking at per capita emissions.

On the other hand, if we reduce emissions drastically, we may destroy the (economic) stability of the world. If you want to substitute aid with trade, you must have somebody who is able to buy. If Germany's buying capacity is reduced, it may not import textiles from you.

But if Bangladesh, for instance, is paid for the atmospheric space used by Germany, then wouldn't Bangladesh be able to buy machinery from Germany?
Such a possibility exists, as article 4 in the climate convention specifies the need for a compensation process. I was criticised for this because everybody said this was a shield for not cutting emissions at home. I think we have to combine both. We have to cut emissions at home and pay others to use equipment that lowers emissions.

You raised the question of poverty. With the world economy getting more integrated, we are becoming global consumers. But are we moving towards a global welfare state?
Of course. The notion of a global village is developing. The necessity for global solutions has increased. To some extent, the notion of a world government to solve our problems is an attractive proposition. On the other hand, NGOs are asking for greater democratisation and the need for villages to determine their future.

We have to be very careful -- not in defining our aim, but in reallocating responsibilities. The unification of western Europe is a step in this direction. But some member states are asking if it is appropriate to have bureaucrats in Brussels handle matters from which they are isolated. So perhaps global governance is not such a good idea. But we may be able to combine it. It is essential for the United Nations to be more integrated. In the past, because of the Cold War, the United Nations was nearly paralysed.

But isn't it still paralysed?
I am not sure.

Isn't it paralysed because it is no longer a fair world. Aren't UN decisions made by a few nations?
If this is true, then it is even more important not to go towards a global government.

Globalisation is taking place in the area of law and order. But why can't globalisation deal with poverty? In any "civilised" society, the income of the rich is taxed to support the poor. Shouldn't we have such a system in an era of global consumerism?
I am not totally against this vision, but only ask for the steps to achieve it. It is very good to have a vision, but we need to differentiate between concrete and abstract visions. I don't want to be cautious or conservative, just a little realistic. I operate in a democracy in which I have to convince the majority to go in this direction. For a politician, you know the message: "Never was elected, never was killed."

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