Does “green capitalism” set the right price on planetary survival?

Why are mainstream economists so keen on costing out the value of nature, climate-induced disasters, and planetary survival? These are central questions Adrienne Buller asks in a well-argued and highly relevant critique of “green capitalism” and its attempts at putting a price on planetary survival.

Given that we know that the planet is rapidly heading towards ecological disaster, and given our knowledge of the causes and solutions, why is it that so little real progress has been made? Why have we still not bent the curve in terms of reducing the emissions and economic practices which lie behind the climate crisis? Why are mainstream economists so keen on costing out the value of nature, climate-induced disasters, and planetary survival?

These are central questions Adrienne Buller asks in The Value of a Whale, a well-argued and highly relevant critique of “green capitalism” and its attempts at putting a price on planetary survival. Buller is a Canadian based in the UK as Director of Research for Common Wealth, a think tank that looks at public ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy.

Her answer to these questions is that policymakers at all levels of governance have, almost without exception, accepted the ideological framework of neoliberal economics to inform policy and deferred public decisions to the power of capital.

Hence, the rise of so-called green capitalism. Green capitalism, despite the climate denialism associated with inaction, does not necessarily deny the reality of the climate crisis, but privileges market-friendly policies and sets the stage for financial and corporate interests to dominate a future “green economy.”

Fredric Jameson famously contended that it was easier to imagine the of the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The discipline and profession of mainstream economics and market centric forms of governance have been essential to this decline in imagination, compressing the horizon for alternatives onto the head of a pin and rendering as natural, inevitable and inescapable a world dominated by market dynamics and governed by the price mechanism,” argues Buller on the lack of imaginative thinking outside of green capitalism.

“Green capitalism is the project guiding much of the global response to ecological crisis and the unprecedented threat to capitalist systems it presents.”

According to Buller, there are two defining pillars of the green capitalist paradigm: “first, the effort to preserve existing capitalist systems and relations in response to this unprecedented threat, and second, ensuring new domains for accumulation in the transition to a decarbonized and ecologically sustainable economy.”

Case in point, consider electric cars. They are certainly making some contribution to the goal of decarbonization of passenger vehicles, and are driving major new investments in new areas like charging station infrastructure, battery technology and manufacturing, and resource extraction for raw materials such as lithium which are in higher demand for electrification and energy storage.

But the growth of the electric vehicle market presupposes the sustainability of simply switching energy inputs (from oil to clean electricity) as opposed to reducing the large environmental burden of personal vehicle ownership. Real decarbonization of the transport sector would require comprehensive planning and investment in public goods such as mass transit, passenger rail and in creating high density urban environments with access to high volume infrastructure. Expanding these public goods does not fit the template of green capitalism.

Another major argument in The Value of a Whale critiques carbon pricing, put forward by liberal economists and embraced by Canadian governments and other advanced capitalist economies as the cheapest and most efficient way to drive the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Setting a price on planetary survival is certainly a market mechanism that green capitalists would be sure to embrace. In practice, however, there is scant evidence of how effective these pricing schemes have actually been in reducing emissions, given political opposition from both companies and working-class households concerned about rising costs, and uncertainty about what level of carbon price is necessary to force significant changes in economic behaviour.

Image of forest canopy amid fog.
Photo by Filip Zrnzević on Unsplash

Governments do not necessarily consider the distributional implications of change, and focus instead on the cost efficiency of manipulating prices. Under the green capitalist regime, carbon pricing is often seen as the major lever for change when it should be secondary to regulation and economic planning. It is far more effective and fairer, for instance, to raise the carbon price after investments in energy efficiency have been put in place to limit inefficiencies later, than to deem everything as inefficient without investment in the green alternative.

Another chapter considers the concept of carbon offsets, often purchased by consumers and businesses to supposedly even out the balance sheet on increased carbon emissions. For example, an effort to balance their emissions expenditures, oil companies have invested in re-forestation to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. But on the ground, there are many dubious practices and a good deal of wishful thinking regarding the impact of re-forestation efforts vis-à-vis continued oil production. Many newly planted forests have been destroyed by wildfires and droughts, induced by climate change caused by the same increased emissions they were supposed to offset.

Buller is also highly suspicious of claims for the positive impacts of ethical and environment, social, governance (ESG) investing, widely touted by the green capitalist corporate sector as a meaningful path to real change. Companies can commit to voluntary reductions in carbon emissions, but almost always restrict monitoring and implementations to their own operations, rather than looking at the broader externalities and global implications of their policies.

In Canada, the major oil and gas companies, supported by government subsidies, have pledged to reduce their domestic emissions according to a timetable that includes the use carbon capture and storage technology. But this approach does not count the emissions from exported oil and gas in other countries, while counting the emissions reductions from clean tech that is still in development.

Buller shows how ESG commitments by corporations and investment funds usually amount to vague and unenforceable “greenwashing.” Even where there is some substance to promises made, there is only a weak and tenuous link between financial investments and what really counts, namely real investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the just transformation of economies built on unsustainable practices.

Buller also provides an excellent overview of the geopolitics of climate justice, demonstrating that many less developed counties lack the means and political power needed to confront the challenges of the ecological crisis.

Though thorough in its critique of green capitalism, Value of a Whale feels short on solutions. However, Buller goes on to articulate policy ideas for a better future further in another recently published work, called Owning the Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis (Verso, 2022). With co-author Mathew Lawrence, Buller sets the case for democratic economic planning through the state and multiple forms of social ownership—certainly a requirement for the just transformation and decarbonization of a capitalist economy.

Adrienne Buller is Director of Research at Common Wealth. Adrienne’s writing and work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin, the New Statesman, New Left Review, and Financial Times, among others.

The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism by Adrienne Buller is now available from Manchester University Press.

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