Taxe carbone et redistribution

Taxe carbone et redistribution

Alors que Greta Thumberg s’indigne au sommet de l’ONU pour le climat, les émissions de gaz à effet de serre ne cessent de s’élever. Pour respecter la barre des deux degrés choisie par la COP 21, la concentration de CO2 devrait se stabiliser puis diminuer. Or elle augmente, à hauteur de 2 ppm (partie par million) par an. Il y a quelques mois , le gouvernement français annonça une augmentation de la taxe carbone. Une vague de contestation déferla sur le territoire français, les Gilets Jaunes, et une partie de la population s’indigna de l’égocentrisme des manifestants : c’est pourtant l’avenir des générations futures qui est en jeu ! Mais n’aurait-on pas oublié l’aspect inégalitaire de la taxe carbone ?

 

Quésaco « taxe carbone » ?

La taxe carbone ou CCE (Contribution Climat Énergie) existe depuis 2014. Elle s’ajoute à d’autres taxes qui sont la TICPE (Taxe Intérieur sur la Consommation de Produit Énergétique) et la TVA. En 2018, 61,4 % du prix du SP 95 correspond à des taxes. La TICPE représente à elle seule 73 % du montant des taxes, ce qui en fait la quatrième source de revenu de l’état. La CCE, quant à elle, est relative aux quantités de CO2 émises par la source d’énergie utilisée (essence, gazole, fioul…). Elle a vu sa valeur augmenter progressivement, passant de 7 euros à 55 euros par tonne de CO2 émise entre 2014 et 2019. L’ambition de la Loi finance de 2018 était d’atteindre 86,4 euros/t CO2 en 2022.

Contrairement aux autres taxes sur les carburants, la taxe carbone a pour mission d’intérioriser les externalités dues à l’émission de CO2. Cette taxe pigouvienne vise à atteindre un signal prix en accord avec le bien commun. Pour les économistes, calculer le coût de la tonne peut se révéler complexe. En effet, le cycle de vie du CO2 s’étale sur environ 80 ans, ce qui force à anticiper l’ensemble des dommages résultant de cette consommation tout au long de cette période. Payer une taxe carbone c’est donc transférer des fonds du présent vers les générations suivantes.

Une tonne de CO2 émise entraînerait 1200 euros de dommage sur la période. Avec un taux d’actualisation de 4% (voir Christian Gollier, « Le climat après la fin du mois »), cela conduit à payer 50 euros aujourd’hui. Une évaluation en accord avec le rapport de Stern et Stiglitz de 2017, évaluait la tonne de CO2 entre 40 et 80 euros. On estime qu’en moyenne, un être humain émet 5,5 tonnes de CO2 par an. Le gouvernement toucherait alors une recette carbone par tête d’environ 275 euros.

Payer une taxe carbone, c’est donc payer le vrai prix de sa consommation. Alors pourquoi des milliers de personne ont-elles occupé des ronds-points un peu partout en France ?

 

Opposition à la taxe carbone

Après les Bonnets Rouges en 2015, le mouvement populaire d’octobre 2018 fait à nouveau remonter des oppositions à la mise en place de la taxe.

Entre 2016 et 2018, la taxe carbone passe de 22 euros à 44,6 euros/t/CO2. En parallèle, le prix annuel moyen du baril de Brent augmente d’environ 60 %. L’augmentation des prix des carburants qui a mis le feu aux poudres est donc le résultat d’une augmentation de la taxe carbone mais surtout d’une augmentation des cours du pétrole. Les deux cumulés ont bien évidemment rendu le coup encore plus rude, mais surtout pour qui ?

Il est important de se souvenir que la taxe carbone constitue un instrument fiscal régressif : les taxes sur les carburants prennent une part relative dans les revenus des plus démunis supérieure à celle des plus aisés. Il faut aussi prendre en compte le facteur géographique : les zones péri-urbaines voire rurales abritent beaucoup de personnes à bas revenus. L’éloignement des services, et l’absence ou le manque de transport en commun conduisent inévitablement à une très forte dépendance aux carburants. Le manque de produits de substitution piège ces personnes, et les condamne à subir de plein fouet la hausse des prix.

« Jaune de rage » pouvait-on voir écrit sur les pancartes, trois mots qui illustrent le sentiment d’injustice ressenti par les manifestants. Un sentiment compréhensible quand on sait que 45 % des émissions de CO2 en Europe proviennent d’entreprises soumises à une taxe carbone deux fois moins importante que pour le reste des agents (dont les ménages).

Cette différence provient de l’European Trading Scheme (ETS), marché des quotas d’émission mis en place à partir de 2005. À la suite de la mise en place du système, une augmentation de 10% des investissements verts des entreprises a conduit à une diminution de leurs émissions. Arrivent les crises des subprimes et de la dette souveraine qui entraînent une diminution de la production et donc de la demande de quotas d’émissions. Actuellement le prix de la t/CO2 pour ces entreprises s’élève à 25 euros, son plus haut niveau depuis 2008. Un écart de prix aberrant, et ce même sur le plan de l’efficacité économique : le signal prix doit être le même pour tous.

Enfin, se pose le problème de l’utilisation des recettes de la taxe carbone. En 2016 par exemple, sur les 3,8 milliards de recettes, 3 milliards sont affectés au Crédit d’Impôt pour la Compétitivité et l’Emploi (CICE). Le montant des fonds affectés à la transition écologique est donc minoritaire. L’utilisation des recettes est floue pour la population. Dans un contexte de suppression de l’ISF, augmenter la taxe carbone dont une partie des recettes est allouée au budget général constitue au minimum un mauvais message politique. Ces messages sont déterminants, car en fin de compte, c’est à la génération actuelle d’accepter la transition.

Pour autant, l’impact du CO2 sur le réchauffement climatique nous force à agir.  Malgré son aspect inégalitaire et un système global encore imparfait (ETS, manque de coordination internationale, etc), une taxe carbone doit voir le jour. La question est : comment la rendre acceptable ?

 

Solutions et redistribution

« La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase » est l’expression parfois employée pour dénoncer l’importance de la hausse des prix des carburants dans le mouvement des Gilets Jaunes. Comme on a pu le voir, c’est l’augmentation simultanée des cours du pétrole et de la CCE qui en est à l’origine. Dans un contexte de hausse des prix d’un produit peu substituable, est-il avisé de la part du gouvernement d’augmenter la pression fiscale ?

Entre 2000 et 2002, la TIPP flottante variait en sens inverse des cours du pétrole. Une hausse des cours du Brent était donc amortie par une diminution de la taxe. Un tel mécanisme en 2018 aurait évité en théorie une hausse trop brusque. Or, ce n’est pas l’objectif d’une taxe carbone. Cette dernière doit mesurer l’impact des émissions de CO2 dont la valeur ne dépend absolument pas des cours du pétrole. De plus, si chaque pays adoptait cette pratique, les exportateurs de pétrole n’auraient qu’à augmenter leurs prix jusqu’à réduire la part de la taxe à zéro.

Tout réside en réalité dans l’allocation des recettes.

La commission Rocard donne une première piste : utiliser une partie des recettes pour financer des projets bas carbones, et l’autre pour réduire les charges sociales. En moyenne annuelle, la charge sociale s’élève à 28 055 euros / ind. En reprenant les chiffres cités plus haut, on comprend que, même en utilisant toutes les recettes carbone (soit 275 euros / ind), l’effet serait marginal, et le serait de plus en plus puisque tout l’intérêt de la taxe réside dans la diminution des émissions, donc des recettes.

En revanche, Helmuth Cremer et Norbert Ladoux montrent que rendre une partie des recettes de la taxe pigouvienne à ceux pour qui elle est la plus lourde à supporter, permet de donner un aspect redistributif à la politique environnementale. Une idée dans la lignée de la tribune du 17 Janvier 2019 du Wall Street journal, signée par 27 lauréats du prix Nobel d’économie. Ces derniers défendent unanimement une taxe carbone dont l’ensemble des recettes serait redistribué uniformément à la population. Christian Gollier soutient l’idée de Cremer et Ladoux, considérant que la redistribution doit être orientée seulement vers les personnes les plus démunies, mais tout en conservant une part des recettes pour d’autres utilisations.

 

En quelques mots…

Le processus de lutte contre les émissions de CO2 sera décisif pour la préservation d’un milieu viable pour l’Homme, ainsi que dans la sauvegarde de nos équilibres démocratiques. Les mouvements populaires nous montrent que la transition écologique doit être équitable, au risque d’entraîner la création de faux adversaires. Dans ce sens, lutter contre les émissions de CO2 en conservant nos valeurs démocratiques nécessitera des processus de redistribution aussi réfléchis, voire plus, que la taxe carbone.

 

Par Maël Jammes

 

 

The growth of world air traffic and its impact on climate change

23_NoEco Picture Plane

Driven by economic growth in East Asia, world air traffic has increased at a very rapid pace in the last decades. As more and more people join the middle class in emerging countries, the market for domestic flights is expanding rapidly, which, in turn, boosts demand for commercial flights in different parts of the world. This has contributed a lot to the continuous growth of air traffic, which has quadrupled in 30 years. This is good news for cities like Toulouse, as aircraft production should continue to increase steadily. However, because the environmental impact of the transportation sector is quite high, growth in this sector raises the question of how this trend will affect climate change. While it may seem like we are moving toward an environmental catastrophe, progress in terms of technology and fuel consumption may lessen the ecological footprint of the aeronautical industry.

Air Traffic Around the World

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization – ICAO, a UN specialised agency responsible for international civil aviation standards, 4.3 billion passengers embarked on regular – commercial – flights in 2018, which represents a 6.4% increase compared to the previous year. In perspective, this rate is about twice the growth rate of the world’s real GDP. Nonetheless, this impressive increase is not new: air traffic growth has been very stable in the past decades, doubling every 15 years, and has been resilient to external shocks – such as recessions or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Picture_Sébastien Montpetit

Paul Chiambaretto, a Professor of Marketing and Strategy at Montpellier Business School, argues in The Conversation in 2008 that the rapid expansion of air traffic is a result of both demand-side and supply-side factors. On the demand side, he stresses the tight link between the development level of a country and the consumption level of air transport. The International Air Transport Association’s estimate of income elasticity of the demand for airplane tickets is between 1.5 and 2, meaning that a 1% increase in national income implies people buy 1.5 to 2% more tickets. A prime example of this relationship between economic growth and air transport demand is Asia. Passenger traffic in Asia, expressed in revenue passenger-kilometres (RPK) – i.e. the number of passengers multiplied by the distance travelled, a standard measure of air traffic in the industry – grew by 9.5% in the region, which currently accounts for 34.8% of world traffic. Furthermore, planes are now used more than ever for freight transport, which pushes the demand for commercial flights even further.

On the supply side, the emergence of low-cost companies, especially in Europe, has forced other airline companies to lower their prices. For prices to fall, economic theory suggests that the increase in supply must be greater than the increase in demand, which says a lot about the weight that companies such as Ryanair and Easyjet have on the market.

Airplanes and Global Warming

The growth of air transport seems a priori incompatible with the international community’s objective of limiting global warming. Transoceanic flights require tens of thousands of litres of jet fuel for an ever increasing number of departures. In 2017, the transport sector was responsible for 25% of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions. Even if air transport generates a small share of these transport emissions, the level of emissions remains very high.

However, new technologies have been implemented by airplane manufacturers to reduce fuel consumption, and consequently mitigate the environmental footprint of aviation. According to the ICAO, aircraft operations are now 70% more efficient than they were in the 1970s. The organisation claims that reducing aircraft noise and emissions is one of its main priorities. Airline companies and manufacturers are committed to deploying new systems that limit greenhouse gas emissions. They mainly focus on three fields: improving airport infrastructures, adapting aircraft technology and increasing the use of sustainable fuels.

In particular, the CORSIA program, adopted in October 2016 in Montreal, Canada, is one of the first binding international environmental agreements in history. This ambitious program aims at maintaining the level of carbon emissions of international aviation at the 2020 threshold. Under the agreement, for the first six years, 65 countries representing 87% of world air traffic, committed to halting the increase in air transport emissions from 2020 to 2026. From 2027, all 191 member countries – with some exceptions for less-developed countries and isolated countries – will be bound by the constraining agreement. As a result of the agreement, a carbon market will be created to force companies that pollute more to buy credits from less polluting companies in order to compensate for their emissions.

At a time when progress concerning the reduction in carbon emissions is scarce, the progress made by the transport industry proves that there is hope. Not only has this sector succeeded in slowing the increase in greenhouse gas emissions despite a high growth in demand, but it has set also ambitious targets for the following decade. Hopefully, many other international initiatives will follow to curb worldwide greenhouse emissions. That being said, it was nice to see Greta Thunberg in Montreal with about half a million people for the Global Climate Strike on 27 September 2019. Greta, may you inspire all of us to fight climate change together!

by Sébastien Montpetit

 

References:

  1. International Civil Aviation Organization. The World of Air Transport in 2018. 2019. https://www.icao.int/annual-report-2018/Pages/the-world-of-air-transport-in-2018.aspx
  2. Schulz, E. (2018). Global Networks, Global Citizens: Global Market Forecast 2018-2037. Airbus GMF 2018.
  3. Chaimbaretto, Paul. Trafic aérien mondial, une croissance pas prête de s’arrêter. The Conversation. 19-05-08. https://theconversation.com/trafic-aerien-mondial-une-croissance-fulgurante-pas-prete-de-sarreter-116107
  4. International Air Transport Association. (2008). Air Travel Demand. IATA Economics Briefing No 9.
  5. Eurostat. Greenhouse gas emission statistics–emission inventories. 2019. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/environment/air-emissions
  6. Représentation permanente de la France auprès de l’Organisation de l’Aviation Civile Internationale. L’Assemblée de l’OACI adopte une résolution historique relative à un mécanisme mondial pour la compensation des émissions de CO2 de l’aviation internationale. 2019. https://oaci.delegfrance.org/L-Assemblee-de-l-OACI-adopte-une-resolution-historique-relative-a-un-mecanisme

Europe’s response to plastic issues

Over the past fifty years, global production of plastic has multiplied by twenty, and so has its waste. Since you began to read these words, between one and a half and four kilogrammes of plastic waste has ended up in the oceans, representing approximately between five and thirteen million tonnes of plastic leakage every year. At this speed, scientists say that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans. In addition to obvious environmental issues, this could also have an impact on human health. For example, microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic smaller than five millimetres, have been found in the air, drinking water, fish, salt, and honey. By 2030, environmental damages could be valued at twenty-two billion euros.

European citizens generate around twenty-six million tonnes of plastic waste every year. An average of thirty percent of this amount is recycled (this number varies a lot across European countries); the rest is either incinerated or landfilled. A substantial share is sent to third countries to be treated, where different standards apply. Most of this share is shipped to China, a situation that may soon end as China has now banned certain types of foreign plastic waste. Although incineration can be a tempting alternative to landfill, it produces a high amount of CO2 and destroys raw materials after a very short lifespan. On top of the dependence on fuel extraction for production, plastic’s environmental footprint is significant and growing; in fact, its production is expected to double over the next twenty years. What happens with traditional plastic also applies to plastic labelled as biodegradable. The latter actually degrades under very specific conditions that may not be easily met in natural environments and therefore still causes degradations. If other alternatives are available, the share they occupy in the market remains modest. For example, bio-based plastic, plastic made out of carbon dioxide or methane have a lower impact on the environment. Even though they have the same features as traditional plastic, they struggle to expand and to replace it.

Europe is now responding to this plastic crisis by taking several measures, particularly by banning the ten single-use plastics products most frequently found on European beaches and in lost fishing gears, which together account for seventy percent of marine litter. Single-use plastic products such as cigarette butts, balloon sticks, plastic bags, straws, cutlery, and so on, are often used away from home and are thus very difficult to recycle. The Members of the European Commission (MECs) have announced that by 2021, all these products will have to be replaced by non-plastic alternatives. Some of them will be banned immediately since alternatives are already available. MECs also introduced the so-called producer responsibility strategy: producers of cigarette filters, wrappers, and other plastic products will have the obligation to support the waste management cost of these items.

As sixty percent of plastic waste comes from packaging, the European Commission published a report on the “Strategy for plastic in a circular economy”. Recyclable or reusable plastic is currently meeting six percent of the total plastic demand; the objective for 2030 set in the report is a hundred percent of plastic packaging composed of this particular type of plastic. That way, a significant amount of waste could be avoided as the raw material could be reused. However, this policy implies a proper waste collection and investment in recycling capacities. Lately, product brands and manufacturers have been reluctant to use recycled plastic because they fear that it could not meet their needs of constant quality, high-volume, and reliable plastic. Therefore, this sector has suffered from uncertain outlets and low profitability. Moreover, the success of such a measure rests upon the goodwill of all the actors of the plastic chain, as mostly non-coercive actions have been announced.

The creation of a virtuous circle for plastic is one solution that Europe chose to implement. In order to limit plastic pollution, would it not be easier to eliminate the problem at the root by directly banning any plastic packaging, which is the main source of plastic waste? However, consumers and brands might not be ready yet for such a drastic step, as this implies making an effort or giving up on a considerable marketing tool.

by Noémie Martin

 

*Featured image: A plastic-throwing dragon was set up in front of the European Commission by the NGO Rethink Plastic.

The winners and losers of the French 2008 feebate policy

In 2008, the French government introduced a policy taxing cars with high carbon emissions and rebating low carbon emission cars, better known as a feebate policy or bonus-malus écologique. This type of policy is appealing for two reasons: first, because it provides incentives to purchase less polluting cars, and secondly, because it can be designed to be revenue neutral since the revenue collected through the taxes subsidies the rebates.

In a recent paper, I conduct a quantitative evaluation of this policy, with a particular focus on its distributional effects: it is particularly relevant in this case to identify the winners and losers of the policy. I also analyse the effect of this policy, which is based on carbon emissions, on other local pollutants like particulate matter or nitrogen oxide. By nature, a policy that targets carbon emissions favours diesel cars, which consume higher levels of emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter than petrol cars. Particulate matter and nitrogen oxide are known to have a direct impact on air quality and hazardous effects on health. While carbon emissions have a global impact, these local pollutants’ emissions raise the question of distributional impacts of the feebate policy in terms of health effects.

To measure these effects, I build a structural model of market equilibrium for the automobile industry. This implies estimating the supply and demand for the different car models using data on car characteristics and sales, which can then be used to simulate what the market would have looked like had there been no feebate policy in 2008. Comparing the observed market equilibrium with the counterfactual one, I can thus deduce the policy’s causal effect. Relying on a structural model is especially useful because some outcomes of interest cannot be observed directly, but can be expressed in terms of the model parameters. This is the case for car manufacturers’ profits and consumer surplus.

A notable challenge in modelling this market and being able to distinguish the winners and losers of this policy is to incorporate a large dimension of heterogeneity in individuals’ preferences for cars and their attributes. I make the assumption that individual heterogeneity in preferences is related to observable demographic characteristics, and leverage the correlation between composition of car sales and demographic characteristics at the municipality level. For instance, observing that the cars purchased in rural areas tend to be more fuel efficient than in urban areas reveals that individuals in rural areas tend to drive more, and are thus likely to be more sensitive to fuel costs than those living in urban areas. I also find a positive correlation between horsepower and income, which can be observed from the sales in wealthier municipalities.

On the supply side, I model the competition between car manufacturers and their pricing strategies, with and without the feebate policy. I do not model the choice of car characteristics and consider they are identical regardless of the regulatory environment. The marginal cost of each car model is estimated under the assumption that the car prices in 2008 are the optimal prices under the feebate policy. In the simulation of the market equilibrium absent the feebate policy, I predict prices and sales for each car model since both are jointly determined by demand and supply.

What is important here is that when setting its prices, the firm anticipates that consumers get a rebate or pay a tax and take up a part of the rebate or the tax. How much is left to the consumer depends on the competition of the market and the market power of car manufacturers.

In the end, the feebate policy improved consumer surplus and firms’ profits, surpassing the 223 million euros it cost in 2008. I find that the feebate caused a decrease in average carbon emissions of 1.56%, while average emissions of local pollutants – carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, NOx, and PM – all increased. Emissions of local pollutants and carbon dioxide, however, increased once converted into annual tons. The increase in annual carbon emissions can be explained not only by the higher share of diesel cars, which implies more kilometers are driven, but also by the increase in the number of cars purchased. Indeed, the cars with low carbon emissions, which are already cheap cars, become even cheaper because of the rebates. This means that individuals who were not initially buying a car do buy a car, at least in my model. Nonetheless, including the cost of carbon and local pollutant emissions using standard levels still implies that the policy is globally welfare improving, with an estimated net benefit of 124 million euros.

Shifting the focus to the impact on income distribution, the main insight is that the feebate favoured the middle-income category at the expense of low and high-income classes. Moreover, given that the policy was not revenue neutral and contributed to a net deficit, the feebate could have been made redistributive if it were to be compensated by a proportional to income tax.

Clear winners and losers also appear among the car manufacturers. Car manufacturers are typically very specialised in different car segments: French manufacturers specialize in small, fuel-efficient cars, whereas bigger cars are the mainstay of the German car manufacturers. It comes as no surprise that the model points towards PSA and Renault, the two French manufacturers, as the winners of the feebate policy. The feebate policy increased their profits by 3.4% and 4% respectively, a considerably higher gain compared to increase in profits of the total industry (2.1%). Fiat group, the Italian manufacturer, increased its profits by 6.2% while Volkswagen, a German manufacturer very active on the compact car segment, only increased its profits by 0.3%. The other German manufacturers such as Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes-Daimler, were all severely hurt by this policy.

Finally, looking at the heterogeneity of the policy effects in terms of emissions of local pollutants, I find that average emissions increased the most in low emission municipalities. The policy generated a decrease in average emissions of local pollutant in some areas, but a high degree of heterogeneity can be observed across the country.

The analysis is concluded by an evaluation of the feebate in terms of redistribution and limitation of local pollutant emissions. The idea is to ask whether it would have been possible to improve consumer surplus, achieve more distribution across individuals, or limit the increase in emissions of local pollutants with the same budget and the same effect on average carbon emissions. In this exercise, I restrict the set of alternative policies to be simple linear feebates with different slopes for rebates and taxes. Interestingly, I find that average consumer surplus cannot be further improved, while there are large potential gains in terms of profits. Alternative feebate schemes could limit the rise in emissions of local pollutants, but the gains are not very large, and the best outcomes for the different pollutants cannot be achieved with a single feebate scheme: this reveals that there is an arbitrage to be made between the various pollutants.

by Isis Durrmeyer

The disappearance of sand

For most of us sand recalls the beach, holidays, and the sun but that is about it. In our daily lives, we do not pay much attention to this insignificant matter. But is sand really that common? Is it in infinite quantity and will it always be faithful to our holiday appointments? And beyond the coast, what is its real impact on our lives?

Sand is the hidden hero of our time. It is everywhere and yet few people are aware of it. When melted it is usually transformed into glass, but not only. Sand is the source of silicon dioxide, a mineral component that plays a significant role in manufacturing detergents, paper, dehydrated food, hair spray, toothpaste, cosmetics, and a multitude of products surrounding us. It is also a source of strategic minerals such as silicon, thorium, titanium, which are all necessary for our hyperconnected society. It is the basis of microprocessors, computers, bank cards, smartphones, and a host of devices that cannot be ignored today. It is like the air we breathe, we do not think about it, but we cannot live without it. The problem is that our appetite for sand goes much deeper.

Pic 1 - SandThe industrial sector that consumes the most sand is construction. Our main infrastructures are made of reinforced concrete whose technical performance and relatively low cost of production make it the ideal material. On the planet two third of what is built is made of reinforced concrete — and it consists of two thirds of sand. For instance, a house of average size requires 200 tons of sand to be built. A larger building, such as a hospital, needs about 3,000 tons. A kilometre of highway uses at least 30,000 tons of sand. And a nuclear power plant swallows up to 12 million tons. The amount of sand consumed each year exceeds 40 billion tons which makes it the most used natural resource in the world after air and water.

The sand market is huge, and the grainy industry is doing great. Roads are deteriorating, which need to be redone, bridges also need be renovated, people still need homes, buildings, etc. But meeting the demand is not always easy. Unlike popular belief, sand is not easy to find. Back in the days there were open–pit quarries of sand and gravel. But all the “easy accessible” and cheap resources have already been consumed. Then we switched to extracting sand in riverbeds, but we noticed that it could lead to more floods. Now we turn to seabed sand but we begin to realise that there are also many side effects. The ocean floor is not miles of sand deep. It is a thin layer that is habitat to microorganisms which feed the base of the food chain. Collecting that sand, which took hundreds of thousands of years to form, disrupts fishing in the area and landscape on shore. Yet it is here at the bottom of the oceans that we take the majority of sand that serves to feed an ever more voracious clientele.

Dubai is a striking example of this voracity. In a few decades this fishing village has become a sandbox where everything is allowed provided that it is unique and pharaonic. But in Dubai the delusions of grandeur devours a lot of sand. Huge amounts of sand are used to make concrete but also to gain ground on the sea with artificial islands. In 2000 the land value in Dubai had soared so high that it was cheaper to build artificial islands rather than buying lands. This result is fascinating but also fearsome regarding the results of land speculation. In 2003, Dubai decided to launch an extravagant project “The World”. Consisting of 300 artificial islands supposed to draw the map of the world, the project gobbled 450 million tons of sand pumped off the coast of Dubai. But today the construction of “The World” has stopped. The overexploitation completely liquidated the sand reserves. Of course we can suppose it is not a problem since Dubai is right next to the desert. So why does not Dubai just use it? They have tried, but immediately gave up the idea because it was a disaster. Desert sand is the wrong kind of sand, it is useless because these grains have been rolled by wind, they are round and smooth and they do not stick together. For most purposes we need angular sand that interlocks like pieces of puzzle, the one from the seabed. The irony of Dubai is that it is surrounded by useless desert sand and had to import sand from Australia to build Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world. In English there is a saying “to sell sand to an Arab” which refers to doing something absurd —  in Dubai it has become a reality.

Whether for its mineral components or as an engine of urban growth, sand is a staple whose exports by country have totaled USD 1.7 billion in 2017. Sand is therefore a mineral value that can strongly participate in the economy of a region. At what price? When we extract sand from the ocean floor not only are we altering the underwater ecosystem, but we also cause a chain reaction whose repercussions are visible on the coast. Sometimes it can even lead to the disappearance of an island. When an island disappears, international maritime boundaries are affected and the stakes are not only commercial or ecological — they become geopolitical. Like most archipelagos, Indonesia is full of islands which are literally made of sand and 25 Indonesian islands have already been wiped off the map. If Indonesia shrinks it is because it has provided huge amounts of sand to its neighbour Singapore.

As dozens of overpopulated Asian cities, Singapore needs to expand to avoid asphyxia. The very existence of Singapore depends on its imports of sand. Its surface area has grown by 20% in the last 40 years, equivalent to 130 square kilometres. By 2030, it plans to add another 100 square kilometres to its surface. Its appetite is such that Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have all decided to forbid sand trading with Singapore. But sand addiction is not easy to restrain. Suspicions of traffic weigh on Singapore. The city has indeed found an alternative to import sand through local traffickers. Singaporean dealers operate under false identities and through fictitious companies to get sand supplies from neighboring countries, despite the prohibitions and with the consent of the state, their most loyal client. Unfortunately Singapore is not an isolated case. Governments worldwide have begun to regulate and restrict sand mining and concrete production. But it has led to new problems: a black market for sand and local sand mafias. In India the sand mafia is the most powerful criminal organisation. For these criminals, the beaches are easy prey because the sand is free and at hand. The pillaging of sand hits everywhere even on the most touristic sites.

This looting leads to the disappearance of beaches. Globally between 75 and 95% of the world’s beaches are receding. And the situation will only get worse. If nothing is done, in 2100 the beaches of the world will be ancient history and a large part of the world’s population will be affected. Are there solutions? Today there are materials that are able to replace concrete. There are examples of buildings made out of more than 90% recycled materials such as straw. But today the construction industry does not know how to build with other materials than concrete. The idea would be to use another granular material that would be a substitute for natural sand. There is a beach called the “Glass Beach” near San Francisco. At this place, for years, the city was getting rid of all its garbage on this beach. Gradually, the glass broke into small pieces that were polished by the waves. Nature itself has produced sand from used and broken bottles. Not only does it look like sand but it also has the same properties. The recycling of glass is a track that could ultimately help the beaches.

We have made tremendous progress on environmental protection, but the beach has been rather neglected. Sand deserves a little more respect and attention. If we are aware that every single grain of sand is as fragile as it is unique, then we will understand how much it is paramount to the planet and our lives.

 

by Chris Laugé