Energy and the Environment: Empowering Consumers

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Vol: 37, Issue: 4

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Kuh, Katrina Fischer
Environmental law; Energy policy; Global warming; Environmental ethics; Law
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Individual consumers and the local governments that serve them are at the center of the energy-environment equation. Consumers experience the fruits of energy and environmental policies--whether those policies damage the environment and imperil environmental goods or protect the environment but perhaps impose higher costs on consumers--and are in a unique position to influence energy policy and environmental outcomes through their political, behavioral, and consumption choices. In the United States, the individual and household sector generates, by some estimates, thirty to forty percent of GHG emissions. And the harms from individual behaviors and consumption with respect to a wide range of environmental media are becoming increasingly clear:Taking all production inputs into account, the individual consumption of ordinary items can have surprisingly disproportionate environmental impacts. For instance, the production of one kilogram of beef in the United States requires an estimated 47,000 to 200,000 liters of water. . . . The production of the amount of gold used in a single wedding ring generates approximately three tons of toxic mining waste. The production of one liter of soda, taking raw materials and packaging into account, requires an average of five liters of water. And production of a cotton t-shirt requires nearly four pounds of fossil fuel and one-third of a pound of pesticides.Yet, traditionally, energy and environmental law and policy have not viewed either individuals or their consumption as a primary target of regulation. Energy law and policy is oriented largely toward ensuring the existence of an adequate supply of energy as opposed to managing demand. And environmental law and policy targets pollution (as opposed to consumption) and large, industrial sources (as opposed to individuals).A growing chorus of policymakers, scientists, and (most recently) legal scholars has begun to call for policies that recognize and engage individuals and their consumption as contributors to environmental harms. While the connection between consumption and the environment has been recognized since at least the eighteenth century and calls for individual action to protect the environment are certainly not new, a number of recent developments are catalyzing interest in targeting individuals and their consumption as a much more significant component of energy and environmental law and policy