The new environmentalists have no real solutions

Kristian Niemietz

August 31, 2021

Environmentalism has long had a strong puritanical, anti-consumerist streak. Until a few years ago, a typical environmentalist publication would start with a melodramatic description of some (actual or perceived) environmental problem, and it would then quickly morph into an aesthetic critique of mass consumerism (see pp. 36-42 for a few examples.) Consumption would typically be derided as tacky, vulgar, soulless, and “inauthentic”. Thus, reducing consumption was not presented as a necessary evil, a price we had to pay for the sake of saving the planet. Rather, it was presented as desirable in its own right, and something we should be doing anyway, irrespective of the state of the environment.

This old-fashioned hairshirt environmentalism was infuriating in lots of ways. It always had far more to do with a desire for social domineering and control than with concern for the environment. It was always diametrically opposed to the liberal live-and-let-live philosophy, with the notion that if you disapprove of certain consumption habits, you could simply refrain from engaging in them, rather than trying to spoil them for everyone else.

But the old-fashioned snobbish environmentalism had one good aspect: it was honest about the fact that it required major reductions in people’s living standards. Old-fashioned environmentalism was finger-wagging, ascetic, and austere.

Over the past couple of years, though, there has been a subtle change, as environmentalism has become absorbed in the post-Corbynite “Millennial Socialism” movement. Today’s environmentalists believe that environmental problems such as climate change are really a product of capitalism, and that efforts to address them within that system are a waste of time. Nothing less than the overthrow capitalism will do.

This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by the Corbynite MP Zarah Sultana, who tweeted the other day:

“Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. The climate crisis is a capitalist crisis. We need system change to avert climate catastrophe.”

Channel 4 presenter Adam Hills also said:

“[W]hen you know that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, you kind of wonder why you’re being asked to do the hard work.”

For the environmentalists of old, the culprit was mass consumerism. This meant that we were all implicated to varying degrees, and that we all had to make drastic changes to our lifestyles. The new socialist environmentalists, in contrast, present climate change as something which a tiny elite inflicts upon the rest of us, and which the vast majority of us have nothing to do with. The implication is that it is possible to reach environmentalist goals like “net zero” in a painless, costless way – painless and costless to 99% of the population, at least. The cost would fall exclusively on the tiny group of multi-billionaires who cause all the carbon emissions.

It is an extremely fashionable opinion. Zultana was duly rewarded with over 6,000 retweets and over 20,000 likes, and the “100 companies – 71% of emissions” figures are now being repeated endlessly all over Twitter, as well as, of course, the Guardian, the Independent, and other purveyors of high-status opinions.

It is also an extremely childish position. It makes it sound as if those 100 companies just burned lots of fossil fuels for the sake of it, and somehow made billions of dollars in the process.

Allocating carbon emissions to specific economic actors is not a straightforward process. Carbon emissions are only an issue in advanced economies, which rely on a complex division of labour, and multiple stages of production. Suppose you book a flight to Spain to go on holiday. Who is responsible for the resulting carbon emissions? Who is the bad guy in this story?

Is it you, the final consumer, because you are the one who bought the ticket, and without people like you, the product would not be provided? Is it the airline company, because they provided the service? Is it the airport operator, because they enabled it? Is it the aircraft manufacturer? Is it the company that supplied the aircraft fuel?

The Carbon Majors Report, which is the source for that “100 companies – 71% of emissions” meme, answers that question in the following way: it traces all carbon emissions back to the companies that originally got the primary energy source out of the ground. Thus, all companies contained in that list are fossil fuel producers, mostly of oil and coal.

If you allocate carbon emissions in that way, it is not surprising that you come up with a very small number of companies. There are not that many countries in the world that have oil reserves to begin with, and within those countries, there are not that many oil companies: there is often a single state-owned monopoly. Thus, the companies that are in that list are exactly the ones you would expect to be in that list. The national oil producers of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Kuwait, Quatar, Iraq, Brazil and Mexico are in there, alongside large Chinese and Indian coalmining companies. So far, so obvious.

In principle, we could, of course, shut down those companies, and ban the emergence of any substitutes. In that case, global carbon emissions would plummet. But most of the global economy would grind to a halt. To insinuate that this would only hurt a few billionaires is either deliberately misleading, or just silly.

The “100 companies – 71% of emissions” figure is completely meaningless, and irrelevant. You could merge those companies all into one, in which case one company would be “responsible” for 71% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Or you could split them all up into smaller parts, in which case 200, 500, 1,000 or 100,000 companies would be responsible for 71% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

But this tells us nothing about how much “net zero” would cost the average consumer, or what the most cost-effective way to achieve a given level of carbon reductions would be. You will not get 20,000 retweets for addressing questions of that sort, but those are the questions that matter.


Written by Kristian Niemietz

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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