By Philip Rosetti & Robert G. Eccles for RealClearEnergy, People today cannot deny the negative impacts of pollution and climate change on human health and well-being. The challenge is addressing these impacts while taking into account the tradeoffs involved. When people focus solely on a particular outcome that favors a specific industry, they may fail to acknowledge these tradeoffs. For example, would you choose a polluting coal plant or solar panels made with slave labor to provide electricity to your home? The answer is obviously to reject slave labor, but what if you had to choose? Moreover, how does one weigh the human suffering caused by pollution from a coal plant against the violation of human rights for producing solar panels? It’s time to move beyond a mindset of “save the planet at any cost” to one that focuses on protecting people in both the short and long term.
The reality is that almost all consumption involves some form of tradeoff. For example, even the simple act of eating often requires turning land from habitat into farm. This applies even to sustainable alternatives. Take the case of Electric Vehicles (EVs), which almost always require cobalt, the majority of which comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where child labor is utilized. Additionally, solar panels, the largest provider of which is China, obtain most of their polysilicon from the Xinjiang province where the Uyghur religious minority is used as slave labor. Wind turbines that require neodymium also pose environmental and social concerns. As society transitions towards green energy, it becomes apparent that not everything is as green as it seems when the social dimension is taken into account.
Policymakers need to reckon with these issues and be willing to admit when their policies have caused problems. For instance, there is a growing demand for solar panels made with slave labor, resulting from billions of dollars in subsidies paid by wealthy countries. Even though officials have been made aware of this issue, they have hesitated to restrict these imports as it would be harder to meet their clean energy objectives. The same applies to the push for EVs despite the use of “blood batteries” and child labor to produce them.
Politicians often draw lines in the sand, which misses the point. Instead of focusing on industry preference, governments should consider policies to reduce pollution and human suffering. This includes taxing pollution, prohibiting imports made with slave or child labor, improving plastic waste management, embracing socially responsible mining, and supporting domestically productive industries. It is also important to be aware of the geopolitical and ethical considerations regarding the procurement of raw materials from reprehensible regimes.
Ultimately, achieving governmental policy that truly reduces human suffering requires holding politicians accountable for the outcomes of their policies and focusing on the public benefit. This call for change begins with voters, who need to ask important questions and demand accountability from their elected officials.