June 10, 2008

Let's shout about the price of oil

Being selfish could kill us all, but could also save us. That's my thought on reading of protests arising in disparate countries over the price of fuel and its knock on effect on the price of food.

Roads have been blockaded by angry truckers in the France, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The Guardian is reporting today:

---extract begins
Protests at rising fuel prices are not confined to Europe. A succession of developing countries have provoked public outcry by ordering fuel price increases. Yesterday Indian police forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters in Kashmir who were angry at a 10% rise introduced last week. Protests appeared likely to spread to neighbouring Nepal after its government yesterday announced a 25% rise in fuel prices. Truckers in South Korea have vowed strike action over the high cost of diesel. Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have all raised pump prices. Malaysia's decision last week to increase prices generated such public fury that the government moved yesterday to trim ministers' allowances to appease the public.
---extract ends

An article in the same newspaper reminds us of the need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases: "According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global emissions must be slashed by 50% to 80% by the year 2050 to avoid severe environmental disruption from global warming."

One proposal receiving high levels of support for inclusion in the Simultaneous Policy is Contraction and Convergence, which proposes a per capita limit on emissions, leading to a country total, which some countries are currently below, while others are well above it. The proposal is they converge so everyone has their fair share. Overall emissions are to be steadily contracted to sustainable levels which, as the IPCC suggests, are far lower than at present.

The price increases being experienced at the moment will have some impact as they will reduce the number of journeys taken, encourage local consumption (through increased prices for goods transported long distances) and not only result in less carbon gases going into the air, but less oil being used. It is, after all, a precious resource and some suggest we are at Peak Oil - the point where we have already used half of total conceivable resources, meaning we will fairly rapidly be reaching the bottom of the barrel.

Instead of welcoming high prices as part of the solution our leaders are doing exactly the opposite. They are calling for pumping of oil to be increased in the hope that extra supply will dampen the price.

The protests teach us two things. Firstly, our leaders think precious little about the future of the planet when faced with hostile headlines and people blockading roads. They think of lost votes, harm to the economy and their own political mortality. Hence the immediate response is to cut prices rather than, say, slapping a windfall tax on the bloated oil companies to invest in sustainable energy while appealing for efficiency improvements everywhere possible.

Secondly, people think precious little about the future when faced with increased prices for everyday necessities such as transport, energy and food. Yes, we want to save the planet, but living in a financial system that relies on loading people with debt, we also want to save ourselves from tipping into penury.

Because we are selfish, the politicians act as they do, for their own survival. Governments will fall if they cannot manage the crisis - or at least convince us the other lot would have done no better.

The problem with out-of-control and generally unexpected sudden increases is they have not been managed. They are a sudden blow to the wallet in the rich world and missed meals in the poor world. In the scramble to secure oil supplies, there is no targeting, no amelioration for those who end up being losers. As it is with oil and food, so it could be with many other aspects of our world if controlled transitions to new realities are not achieved.

Our leaders are ill-placed to achieve them, because they are driven by economic and political realities. Long-term planning may include some aspect of moving to a lower carbon economy and away from dependence on fossil fuels, but will more likely be focused on protecting the national interest and securing as much oil as possible, through coersion, blackmail and even force if necessary.

If something like Contraction and Convergence was in place things would be very different. The cut backs called for by the IPCC would not be aspirations, forgotten in the face of economic realities. They would be hard and fast limits, in the knowledge that failing to meet them would cause severe environmental disruption. The IPCC may keep saying it, but without an international agreement - ideally with some carrots and sticks to make it work - no targets will ever be hit.

We, the people, can take the lead by saying that we don't want out-of-control and unexpected price rises that can tip us over into insolvency and perhaps malnutrition, depending on where we live. We can take a look at the Contraction and Convergence proposal, alternatives to it and complementary policies. We can think about how we would like the world to be and build a consensus on how to get there, pretty darn quick. If we need to cut back on oil use, how about every person having the right to their per capita limit? If we use less, then we can sell our excess quota to someone else. If we want more, we pay those who are more efficient. If we live in a rural area, we can have a higher quota. And so on.

This would be no more complex than assigning tax codes and no harder to manage than swiping a bank card.

We learn to live within our income (including our credit limits in the calculation) so we can live within our energy limit. We can plan how to change our lifestyles as limits are cut. We can take to the streets not to protest just over the price of fuel, but over the lack of renewable energy, which could be exempt from quotas. If I want to buy my household energy from an offshore wind farm so I can save my quota for a flight to Brazil, but not enough wind farms have been built to meet the demand, then I will no longer be in a minority calling for them.

With this coming in through the Simultaneous Policy, my country will not be shooting itself in the foot by acting alone. Everyone will be taking similar action. Not identical, because countries are at different starting points, but there will be a global cooperative effort.

Today it is right to shout about fuel prices, particularly if they make it impossible to buy enough food to survive. But if we really want to protect our interests, the louder shout should be for our leaders to sign the pledge to implement SP alongside other governments so that, as quickly as possible, the various crises that threaten to spiral out of control come under effective management.

Transition will definitely happen. Let it be to a new cooperative reality, not a collapse.

The best way to shout is by signing up as an SP Adopter, which is free, by clicking here:

To preview policy suggestions before the next round of voting, or to discuss your own ideas, visit the Simpol discussion forum at:

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