Monthly Archives: December 2013

Can Better Taxation help to save the Planet?

It is the weekend and Jim is out in the local market. He enjoys buying fresh ingredients himself when he has time.

Jim buying apples in the market
Jim buying apples in the market

Every item in the market has two prices – one in local currency, and one in Q. If he buys the goods, both are automatically recorded to his account. The Q cost is a measure of the planetary damage resulting from the purchase.

There are two types of apple on display. The first have been grown in the South, in an area where apples grow well and wages are low, so their money cost is low. Their Q cost reflects the use of artificial fertiliser, mechanised agriculture, and long distance transport, and is relatively high. The calculation is realistic because every business involved in the supply must pass on the Q of the items or services that it supplies.

The second type were grown locally, using organic fertiliser. The Q cost is low, but the labour involved makes their money cost higher.

Whenever Jim buys anything the Q cost is automatically recorded as part of the purchase. Electricity, food, transport, computers, kitchen equipment, each of them has involved some planetary degradation in its manufacture and the Q cost reflects that degradation.

For larger items like kitchen equipment the Q cost can be spread over many weeks, but nevertheless it needs to be paid. Jim tends to buy goods that are well designed with a long life, so that the weekly Q cost is low.

Jim buying a washing machine
Jim buying a washing machine

Items have a high Q if fossil fuels have been burned to make them, if greenhouse gases are emitted, if rainforest has been destroyed, or if the planet has been degraded in some other way. The make up of Q is adjusted each year by an international panel to try to keep activities in balance. For example the high Q of fossil fuels may cause  a swing to bio fuels, with resulting loss of rainforests. The Q value of bio fuels can be increased to avoid this.

Jim checks his weekly tax
Jim checks his weekly tax

At the end of each week Jim checks his Q account. His home spend looks high. He uses the system to find out why, then he makes a mental note to look into better home insulation and lighting.

Why does he care? The bulk of his tax is directly related to Q. If his total weekly Q is low he pays little Qtax, but as it increases the tax rates becomes steeper and steeper.

Jim's tax bands
Jim’s tax bands

Jim has choices. He can buy his electricity from a range of sources – the more he pays the greener will be his electricity and the lower his Q bill. He can eat locally grown vegetables with modest meat portions(low Q) or select imported vegetables and large servings of meat (high Q). He can travel by bike or by public transport, or by various types of car. The greater his Q spend, the steeper his tax rate, and the more sense it makes to seek green alternatives.

The Qtax system was introduced in 2025, initially just for purchases of fossil fuels, and at rates that were easily affordable. It gradually extended over the following 25 years. This gave people chance to adjust.

Why Q? It was decided at the first meeting of the International Panel for the Quantification of Planetary Impact in 2023. They didn’t show much imagination!

Jim grumbles about the system from time to time, but  he supports it because it is fair. The poor are not penalised. Their energy use is generally small enough to leave them paying little tax. There are still examples of individual extravagance but everyone knows that those responsible are paying a great deal of tax. There is a shared international obligation because countries have Q targets and set their Qtax in order to ensure those targets are achieved. The sacrifices are considered acceptable because they are shared, because technology is constantly providing new green alternatives, and because the resulting global action is proving successful.

Why can’t we do this now? The complete system described here would take a considerable amount of international negotiation to agree how Q is calculated, to agree Q targets, and to modify international trade agreements. Each country would need time to decide how to tax Q, or whether to enforce its Q limit some other way. Implementation would also need to wait until electronic payment is the norm, because it will then be easy to add on Q.

The international agreement of Q limits for each nation is important. Without that there is likely to be considerable opposition since action by an individual nation can never be effective.

Lastly people will need time to adjust. This type of system is unfair if imposed suddenly because many people are locked into a high energy lifestyle by work or family commitments. A cut down system, just looking at a small set of big purchases – for example gas for heating, car fuel, and electricity – could be introduced more rapidly and might start the slow process of producing a green economy.

What we could and should do now is to accelerate serious research into this area. There is good work underway but its funding is intermittent. There will be many practical barriers to implementation and study is needed to find the best way forward.

There is also a need for an ethical debate. The debate needs to engage key religious and moral leaders, since their endorsement will be essential to public acceptance. An important question is the extent of the obligation of this generation to those that follow.

Follow the link for more background. You could usefully fill out the poll. Best of all please comment. Taxation will be important in driving behaviour, and it is at the heart of an urgent moral question – how do we share out the limited resources of a finite planet?

Can technology cut food waste?

Jim is a man of the 2050’s. A busy man, keen to stay fit. His electronic assistant Pat is a tiny computer that Jim carries with him. Jim’s words are black, Pat’s are blue.

Preparing for the day with Pat's help
Preparing for the day with Pat’s help

Jim can spend his entire day focussed on work – which will be the subject of a separate post. Pat only interrupts when Jim has spare time at breakfast or when walking. Pat talks to Jim normally, via an earpiece. Jim talks to Pat normally if alone, or via his wrist watch if in company, which has a touch screen for simple answers. So – what about after work?

Pat helps him make a great dinner

The ingredients come precisely packaged in the correct amounts and to the highest quality and freshness. The delivery methods will be the subject of a later post. Pat does not duplicate anything that Jim already has. Amounts are calculated to meet personal needs. There is no waste in the ordering process.

During the cooking of the meal Pat helps Jim by scheduling everything. Jim can focus on the cooking. Complex food is expected in 2050, with several small courses. Pat looks out for problems, and reminds Jim when things need doing so that everything will be ready for his guests. There is no food spoiled during cooking.

The close of day report from Pat covers input of all major nutrients. It compares those with recommended inputs for Jim’s age and weight, for his exercise level, and for his sporting aims. It draws his attention to any unusual readings, for example if recovery time after exercise is too long.

I chose Jim for this first example because, as a single man, his out of work life is relatively simple. A later example will deal with how e-assistants can help women and families, where they will cope with greater complexity and provide much greater benefits.

The key things that make Pat effective are:

Pat handles all purchases, so he knows what food comes into Jim’s house. He knows the content of processed foods because he gets that from the seller. He pays for all restaurant meals and snacks and drinks.

Pat can see, because there are cameras built into Jim’s glasses. However he can do more than see – he can understand what is going on. Pat recognises plates by their shape, he can read the labels on packets, he understands the colour and texture of different foods. Pat’s vision is stereoscopic so he can also estimate the shape and size of a pile of food on Jim’s plate, and by looking again at the end of a meal he can estimate how much Jim has eaten. The information stored at breakfast includes a list of everything that Jim has eaten. It also includes the amount of food left in cupboards and fridges, so Pat knows when to re-order. If Pat isn’t clear on some point, he will ask.  For example he might not see how much cereal is left.

While Pat acquires images, he does not store them. He extracts the basic information he needs, then discards them. This is considered polite.

Pat can hear and analyse speech in any language, but again it is polite to only store certain types of information such as dates, times, and promises. E-assistants communicate their recording status and ensure they are ‘polite’. Pat will tell Jim if his friends are recording what goes on over dinner.

Pat knows how much exercise Jim takes by looking at movements and Jim’s speed.

Pat can sense various body functions such as breathing, pulse, and brain activity. He knows when Jim is happy.

Jim has agreed that he can share personal data with the e-assistants of his friends, including Kat and Al. So Pat can say exactly what food will suit everyone’s tastes.

Pat scours the internet for local bargains or well regarded local businesses. In 2050 the amount of such marketing information is beyond the capacity of humans to adsorb. Pat handles all order placement and payments, with no involvement from Jim except to approve the more important things that Pat proposes to buy.

And how does all that stop food waste? Because Jim buys no more than he will eat, and only eats what his body needs. The load he places on planetary resources is far less than an average 2013 western man. See the related articles below for different views of how much we waste by eating too much red meat. See also the background page link at the end of this post.

Why can’t we do this now? Firstly because the technology is too bulky, and image analysis is too slow and unreliable. Those things will change and this technology will slowly become more convenient and reliable.

Secondly it takes time to build the required conventions. Restaurants and food sellers will need to provide information in an agreed format. That will take time. Likewise it will take time to develop a ‘polite’ mode so that cameras can be worn to dinner.

For more information and the logic behind this see the Food Waste background page.