Does it cost too much to be green?

Updated Thursday 1st June 2006

Neither hybrid cars nor organic food come cheap. Does it cost too much to be green?

All too often, looking at the short-term, it seems too expensive to be green. Cleaner hybrid or electric cars, organic foods, energy efficient domestic appliances, and many other green products, all cost more than their conventional equivalents, so the majority don’t buy them. However, if we look at the long-term, it’s possible that it may cost even more for us NOT to be green. There are four main ways that our actions today can damage the world left for future generations.

  • We are consuming non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels at a rate that will make them either very expensive, or not available at all, in a small number of generations.
  • The emissions of greenhouse gases associated with our fossil fuel use are likely to cause major disruption of the climate, making some areas uninhabitable and increasing the risks of major weather-related disasters.
  • We are adding other pollutants to our environment, whose long-term effects on our health, and that of other species, may be severe.
  • In modifying the environment to support our lifestyle, we are changing or even destroying the habitats of other species, with unknowable, but potentially serious consequences.

The costs that these will impose on future generations are unknown, but certain to be large. Should we be prepared to spend a little more now, to ensure that our children and their children don’t have to spend very much more in the future?

Is green really more expensive?

The examples above certainly appear to be more expensive. However, at the other extreme, “greener” actions such as switching off unnecessary lights, turning down heating thermostats or planning car journeys to minimise unnecessary travel, all cost nothing, other than a bit of thought, and provide instant monetary savings.

In between these extremes, there is a whole mixture of costs and benefits: short-term versus long-term and individual versus communal. I would argue that when we take the longer term and wider view, the green version isn’t really that expensive.

Better household insulation, low energy bulbs and other aspects of domestic design may cost more in the short-term, but provide significant long-term savings of both money and pollution. Expensive hybrid or electric cars are at the moment largely irrelevant, but why drive a large, heavy, fuel-guzzling vehicle when a smaller, more fuel-efficient, one could do the same job at a lower cost?

"driving a smaller, greener, vehicle is only expensive in terms of the image of the driver."

For short journeys, a bicycle is even cheaper! Spurious claims about the safety of SUVs and similar vehicles do little to hide the fact that most of these monsters are an expression of vanity on the part of the owner. Driving a smaller, greener, vehicle and driving it less, is only expensive in terms of the image of the driver.

The same is true of driving smoothly and at the most fuel efficient speed. But the speeding, stop-go driver is sure that his or her time is so valuable that to travel more slowly would be expensive. And there lies the nub of the problem.

It’s a matter of choice

How do we, as individuals, mentally cost our time, our ambitions, our lifestyle desires and compare these with the needs of others, born and unborn? Do we, or should we, consider these other costs when we decide to take a long haul foreign trip, buy a bigger car, or spend on other items?

Many of the goods and services we buy are designed to save us time, so that we have more time to enjoy the additional goods and services we believe we need. Buying the ingredients of a meal and cooking them is seen to “cost” too much of our valuable time, so we spend money on ready prepared dishes that only need to be reheated.

Other purchases are designed to satisfy other desires, such as for status, novel holiday experiences and so on, but all these things cost money. To obtain this money we may even end up working longer hours, to earn enough to buy the goods and services to enjoy in our vanishing leisure time!

It may seem crazy, but this cycle of earning and spending is essential for economic growth, the requirement of liberal market democracies. It’s therefore in the interests of governments, business and the media to keep this cycle in place.

Myths of market economics

Francis Fukuyama claimed in The End of History that liberal market democracies are the final end point of human development, and therefore in some way inevitable. But, as George Lakoff has pointed out, markets are actually designed and created by humans, and are based on particular sets of rules.

At present, those rules do not allow for the costs of environmental damage, and deem that benefits in the future are worth much less than benefits now, but there is no fundamental reason why this should be so. It is just that we have chosen to set up markets in this particular way. The green product or service voluntarily incurs the current cost of environmental protection, while the non-green one does not.

Until a recognition of these additional environmental costs is built into the rules governing markets, being green will always appear to be expensive. There is an enormous educational and political task here.

In the end, money is only a means of exchange, necessary to obtain something that we as individuals happen to want. In a market economy, there will always be providers ready to respond to these wants, or even, dare we suggest, to create new wants, because that is what provides economic growth. But does it have to be thus?

Are we really such inadequates that our lives are only fulfilled if we drive the latest, largest SUV, take the longest long-haul flights to currently unspoilt destinations, and in the process destroy much of what we, or others, may want? Is that really the cheaper option? We are all part of the whole Earth system, so should we not make decisions that reflect this?

It may not be expensive, but it is difficult!

Being green is only really expensive if we think solely in terms of our current lifestyles and ignore the future and the less fortunate. But even in the longer term, it’s not necessarily going to be cheap, and it’s certainly not simple.

All too often, we can reduce one aspect of our environmental damage, and even save ourselves some money, but in the process, make another aspect worse. The hybrid car illustrates this neatly. Current versions actually emit more carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled than does a modern diesel car of similar size, according to research by Which? magazine. But the diesel puts out more of some other pollutants. So while either is better than the gas-guzzler, which of them is actually the cheaper, greener alternative?

"buying ready prepared meals could be a greener choice than home cooking"

Paradoxically, buying ready prepared meals could be a greener choice than home cooking. Meals cooked in efficient industrial ovens use much less energy per item than the myriad of domestic ovens needed to produce the same dishes individually. Storing these dishes in industrial scale chillers is also better than domestic fridges and freezers.

The trouble is, we need the domestic fridges anyway, and we probably end up making extra fuel-expensive journeys to buy the ready prepared dishes. There is a strong incentive for the food manufacturer always to source the cheapest ingredients, and the distortions of the marketplace mean that this may involve the materials travelling massive distances. So the theoretical environmental benefits of industrial food production are mostly illusory.

If we are prepared to look beyond the short-term in our decisions, we need to be aware of their environmental effects, and of the sorts of complications suggested here. There is a whole range of Open University courses that tackle these difficulties, from the introductory to the postgraduate. If you are seriously concerned about the costs of being green, these provide the information you need to help you.

Article first published June 2006.

Futher reading
The End of History and the Last Man
F Fukuyama, Penguin.

Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics
- Bonnie Azab Powell
UC Berkeley NewsCenter

Green Machines
Which?, May 2006, p16-19

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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