I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather.
Not screaming in the back of a car, like his passengers.

Forgive me this bit of dark humor to start off what is essentially an extremely depressing subject, namely the potential for catastrophic man-made environmental changes to wreak havoc on humanity in years to come. Today’s rich countries are the grandfather character above, while backseat passengers represent the rest of the world screaming about global warming and all that.

From time to time, be it through last year’s summit in Bali or this week’s observation of Earth Day, we are constantly reminded of how fragile Earth’s atmosphere has become and the extent of potential devastation yet to come as changing weather patterns first muck up agricultural yields around the world, and soon also threaten large tracts of land making them infertile. Think for example of the significant salination of ground water being witnessed in various countries ranging from Brazil to Indonesia.

With most of the scientists at the forefront of the environmental movement being Western rather than Asian, readers could well take up issue with my opening salvo blaming Europeans and Americans for environmental degradation. The point though is that just as tobacco researchers had to toil for decades before any discernible shift in cigarette smoking occurred, environmental lobbies have their work cut out for them.

A journalist friend who attended some recent meetings of green and environmental lobbyists described a strange scene in the gents toilet. No, not anyone adopting an extra-wide stance in the stalls, but rather the significant use of paper towels to dry hands. In the middle of a meeting on the environment, this behavior struck my friend as particularly stupid, but it also highlighted the deep cultural traits that have to be reversed in Europe and the US before any meaningful progress can be made.

Think about that for a second: if you pull out five hand paper towels to dry your hand every time in the toilet, the “footprint” of a single Westerner would be one tree every day. Multiply that by European and American populations and suddenly it becomes all too clear why Brazilian rainforests disappear at the rate of a few thousand acres every week.

No amount of replanting by Brazil, Indonesia or other countries endowed with massive natural resources can replace the trees lost, because nature selfishly takes a few years to allow a tree to grow fully. From the example above, using hand towels, we can see how much needs to be done here. This is a simple product to understand because the alternative has zero environmental consequences, namely to shake your hands and let them dry naturally within a few minutes. In other words, this is a product where consumption changes can lead to very significant positive impact on the environment. Let’s take that further.

The first step is to cut consumption of wasteful goods, and label all such products accordingly. Just as cigarette packs sold in Europe come with startling warnings of burnt lungs and throat cancer, products made by destroying natural forests must carry similar warnings in their packaging. Industrial lobbies will fight this move, especially in the case of hypocritical European countries, but labelling is the first step to reversing consumption trends.

Secondly, governments across the world can coordinate on useful education of today’s young by highlighting the carbon footprint of various daily products. This involves the use of the Internet and new advertising media to ensure that a social stigma becomes stronger on the use of various products.

Good dreams

Unfortunately, I need to stop here and pop your dreams. There is no way I see any of the above happening, whether it is on paper towels or cars or any other products that typify the higher living standards of European and American people.

Instead, I suspect that suppliers of these products, who are situated in various countries around the world, will have to bear the brunt of the environmental taxes.

This is the point of media headlines of late that scream about China being the world’s largest polluter. For one thing, with more than 1.3 billion people, or four times the population of second ranked polluter United States, China certainly has a smaller carbon footprint per capita. Additionally, much of Chinese production actually is consumed by the United States and European countries, so arguably it is their consumption not China’s that drives the latter’s footprint.

In other words, we can realistically argue that the average Chinese today has less than one-fifth the footprint of an average American. Figures for the rest of Asia calculated this way are even better, with the average Indian coming in at less than one-tenth American equivalents.

There is a move by European and American politicians to create “carbon credits” that allow the users to continue consumption by offsetting it with green projects elsewhere. A laudable idea, but one that is tinged with racist connotations all through. Think of it this way: why should a Cambodian maintain his forests so that a German can drive his Porsche at 200 mph on the Autobahn?

Second-round effects of carbon credits are more negative as the inflexibility imposed on land use causes significant declines in food production from time to time. The latest rice scare is partly because of potentially fertile lands in various rice-producing countries being ring-fenced away for environmental projects.

No individual in Asia or Africa should starve so that an American can wipe his hands with five paper towels.

The first step, as I laid out above, is to cut consumption of wasteful products by Europeans and Americans. The second step is to accelerate development of energy technology that can be used to improve energy efficiency such as fuel cell stacks for generating electricity, increased focus on nuclear reactors for the same purpose and so on. Imposing taxes on negative goods such as pollution caused by airlines is also a good idea and one that America must adopt right away.

Taking a single jumbo jet off service provides the equivalent footprint of generating electricity using coal for an entire Indian village. This is the new math of the world, and one that needs to be considered in environmental decisions.