Photo: Jens Büttner/DPA/PA Images

Environment report: capitalism is the environment's guarantor

Blue can still go green—with the help of the market
May 9, 2019
Photo: Jens Büttner/DPA/PA Images Is it any surprise that Extinction Rebellion environmental campaigners are so keen on dismantling capitalism, given that socialists embrace them while capitalists recoil in fear? Recent weeks hold a lesson. Conservatives must engage more with environmental groups. Our means may be different, but not the ends we wish to see.

True, some Conservatives have reached out to Extinction Rebellion and the even more successful School Strike for Climate. Despite this, there are some on the right who would focus on their methods, not their message. But while blocking roads is not the way to deliver meaningful change, when hundreds of passionate campaigners arrive in Westminster, that is an invitation to explain that we care just as much about the environment as they do. Where we disagree is on the best course of action.

This government has a world-leading record tackling climate change. The UK recently went 90 hours with no coal in our energy mix—the longest period since the industrial revolution. We have increased renewable energy production fourfold since 2010. These sensible, Conservative measures may not have the radical appeal of Extinction Rebellion but they have one significant advantage: they will work. In country after country we have witnessed the failures of socialism. The lesson of the last century is that it will fail wherever it is tried, often with enormous human—and environmental—cost.

For instance, the first demand of Extinction Rebellion is for the UK to be net carbon zero by 2025. This would require huge upheavals—wind farms twice the size of Wales, the replacement of gas boilers in over 22m homes, the vast majority of the country going vegan and strict rationing of air travel.

Not only is this unachievable, it would fundamentally destroy popular consent for action on climate change. A better approach would work with the grain of human nature. We should trust individuals and the market. Green energy tariffs, where suppliers match the electricity you use with renewable energy, haven’t been imposed by government diktat, but are the product of the market responding to consumer demand. Electric cars are being produced by hyper-capitalist Elon Musk at Tesla, not some latter-day Lada.

Theresa May might have missed an opportunity by not sitting down with the inspirational teenage campaigner Greta Thunberg, but far worse was Jeremy Corbyn, who nodded along to her concerns despite having proposed re-opening coal mines. Central planning cannot deliver the change we need; the market can. Of course there is an enabling role for government. To take Germany as an example, around 220,000 energy efficiency installations are delivered per year through 0.75 per cent interest loans. The loans cover a range of improvements, which means people naturally take them up while renovating their homes. A €1.7bn investment generated €1.6bn in VAT receipts alone, so it is almost cost-neutral even before jobs created and energy bill savings are considered. Bringing every UK household up to Energy Performance Certificate grade C would save 25 per cent of the energy we use; dramatically reducing our need for new fossil fuel-based power stations.

If the government can design incentives to encourage greater adoption of measures against climate change, the market will step in and deliver them. It may be messy, but free markets have delivered greater human prosperity, freedom and wellbeing than any five-year plan. In the same vein, capitalism isn’t the enemy of environmentalism, but its guarantor.

However, unless Conservatives are willing to roll up their sleeves and make the case, solutions to the climate crisis will continue to come from the left. We will be cut out of the dialogue—and the planet will be worse off for it.

Read more from our environment report