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The personal choice argument has no legs

The government’s COP26 rhetoric means no one is held to account

By Christie Edward James

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Perhaps one of the most infuriating things to come out of COP26 so far is the same old same old. I agree, some of the biggest polluters not being there is indeed not very constructive, but one of the biggest that is there—the UK—is dragging their conservation topics back to Thatcher era politics.

Personal choice is the name of the game at the moment. A typical Tory tactic. But not one I thought I’d see them mention at COP26. One where, as should be obvious by the scale of climate change and, thusly too, this very event, personal choice is the most reckless option. Personal freedoms, liberty, civil rights: of course, these are things I agree with. Though, they’re missing the point. In a society, which yes we do live in, sacrifices must be made so that the people as a whole can be freer.

The government almost made a step forward some days ago. Almost. The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, signalled the prospect of a meat tax. Not directly a meat tax, I should say, but a tax on foods with a high carbon footprint. Which, of course, is meat. No matter how local your meat is, its carbon footprint is a multitude of times higher than non-meat options.

The President of COP26, Alok Sharma, however dismissed such an idea in the name of ‘personal choice.’ Despite him outlining that he is in favour of using high or low taxes for incentive reasons, he shot down such an idea. I can’t help but think he has a bone to pick with the ‘eco-warriors’ and plant-based folk amongst us. Should we not tax what people eat? Should we not tax carbon footprints in general? Well, you know why this idea is being shot down? The implications it could mean as to further legislation.

Personal carbon footprints are a sham, we know this. It was fabricated by fossil fuel companies to shift blame to the consumer. Nothing new there. A carbon tax would not affect the worst-off in society, since the worst-off in society don’t have a huge carbon footprint. The rich and powerful do. Carbon (and other greenhouse gasses, for that matter) should be taxed. Progressively.

I would agree, however, that a meat tax may be unfair if the cost was disproportionately moved onto the poorest in society. A primary solution to that (with the secondary solution being a carbon tax which should still come later anyway) is removing the insane subsidies that red meat and dairy currently have in the UK. If you think about it, meat is not a cheap product. It requires immense space, resources, the care of an animal for years, etc. The reason it’s so cheap is because of government subsidies.

Equally so, Boris Johnson caught a private jet to and from COP26. When grilled about it his spokeswoman from Downing Street, Allegra Stratton, claimed that it was Johnson’s ‘personal choice’ to fly his polluting jet.

How can we possibly expect the biggest polluters on earth to listen to the UK when the only argument we seem to fall back on is, essentially, ‘I want to, so I have’. Which is what that ‘personal choice’ argument boils down to. It’s incredibly hypocritical of the UK government and other world leaders to impose tough climate legislation on the global south, but still jet around and eat absurd amounts of red meat up here.


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