Free market capitalism will save the planet



For as long as the debate around the environment has existed, we have been told that capitalism and the climate are diametrically opposed. You protect one at the detriment of the other. So long as we continue to live our decadent lives in our developed economies, gorging ourselves on fast food and fast fashion, the warming of the Earth will only accelerate. Or so the narrative goes.

That’s why one of Extinction Rebellion’s rallying cries is for an “end to consumerism”. It’s why eco-socialists love to argue that we should abandon economic growth in order to save the planet. They insist that if we can just escape from the clutches of our capitalistic way of living and transform the world economy, we could put the brakes on climate change once and for all.

Conveniently, we can now put that theory to the test. Thanks to coronavirus, dozens of developed economies around the world were shut down. Normal life was effectively paused for millions of people and consumer spending plummeted. In essence, Covid-19 lockdowns were a temporary “end to consumerism” – exactly what the eco-socialists have been campaigning for.

Unfortunately for them, the environmental consequences of that did not pan out exactly how they had hoped.

A new report in Nature examines the state of the climate during the lockdown period. It finds that the dramatic changes in our behaviour have had little to no effect on global temperature rises. The increase in the temperature of the planet will be just 0.01C lower than it would have been otherwise, a difference the authors of the report call “negligible”.

Lockdowns have come at a catastrophic cost. Millions of jobs have been lost around the world and we are heading into a colossal, era-defining recession. And that immense economic disruption made just 0.01 degrees’ worth of difference.

If we didn’t know it already, this latest data definitively proves that the eco-socialist approach of compromising on the economy in order to save the planet simply does not work. The incredibly simplistic economic model in socialists’ heads which says that the bigger the state is, the less damage evil private corporations can do, has been shown up as the nonsense that it is.

The economy is not some inscrutable body which we unaccountably prioritise ahead of actual human interests. It is simply the word we use to describe the transactional nature of temporary existence. Seeking to safeguard and strengthen the economy is the same thing as fighting for human interests. The better the economy does, the better people’s lives are.

The only alternative is feudalistic agro-communism. As has been the case through much of human history, that involves the vast majority of the world’s population living as peasants in abject poverty. People died young from curable diseases. They were trapped in lives of squalor. Their quality of life was a fraction of what it would be today.

That would be our eventual destination if we continued in a state of lockdown indefinitely. That’s where we would find ourselves if the “end to consumerism” was made permanent. Less economic growth means more poverty.

There is no reason why you can’t be both pro-capitalism and pro-environment. In fact, being pro-capitalism makes you a much better environmentalist. The Nature report goes on to say that a “strong green stimulus” could prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5C by 2050. In other words, evidence-based policy which harnesses the power of economic growth and funnels it into green enterprise – rather than trying in vain to oppose it altogether – is how we can stop the world from getting exponentially hotter.

Climate change is caused by emissions which come from fossil fuels. So the only way to fight it is to replace fossil fuels. And the only way to do that without undoing two centuries of economic progress and plunging the world back into poverty is through the power of the free market. The alternative is indefinite lockdown. And if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that that is a profoundly unattractive prospect.

Jason Reed is digital director of the British Conservation Alliance and deputy editor of opinion site 1828. He writes for The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, the i Paper, Conservative Home, Prospect Magazine, and several others. Follow him on twitter: @JasonReed624