Can capitalism save the Earth from climate change?

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      On December 15, two speakers from the Pembina Institute gave an on-line presentation to more than 100 people about the economic impact of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. Matt Horne and Josha MacNab cited a recent report (see box), which suggests that with the right environmental policies, including a sharp increase in wind-powered electricity generation, the country’s gross domestic product could rise, on average, by 2.1 percent annually between 2010 and 2020—and emissions could still be reduced to 25 percent below 1990 levels.

      They said this would be in line with the cuts necessary to ensure the average temperature won’t rise two degrees on average above that of the preindustrial period. “It doesn’t mean that at two degrees, we won’t see impacts,” MacNab said. She pointed out that B.C.’s stated target for 2020 is for emissions to fall 14 percent below 1990 levels. The federal government’s stated target for 2020 will bring emissions only three percent below 1990 levels, she added.

      The presentation was sponsored by the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, which promotes carbon-neutral electricity generation, including run-of-river and wind-power projects. The report was released by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation and, according to Horne, was supported by TD Bank and written by SFU resource economist Mark Jaccard.

      These days, groups like the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation are playing an increasingly big role in the national and provincial climate-change debate. This concerns David Peerla, a former Greenpeace forestry campaigner who wrote a PhD thesis on environmentalists’ tactics.

      “Good environmental campaigning and good social-justice campaigning makes the production process more transparent,” he said in a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office.

      He claimed that “business environmentalism”, on the other hand, is characterized by backroom deals with companies and governments that inhibit transparency. And in Peerla’s eyes, the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation are more interested in playing the “inside-Ottawa, inside-Victoria, inside-the-corporate-boardroom game” than traditional, grassroots B.C. environmentalists, who have sometimes engaged in civil disobedience to force changes.

      “Let’s just take the slogan 'cap and trade’,” Peerla said. “There are two styles of campaign. 'Cap’ people are like old-time toxics fighters—block the pipe, end the industry—they’re the guys who say 'No.’ ”

      In this camp, he listed Greenpeace, the Wilderness Committee, and people fighting run-of-river power projects. Peerla contrasted the “cap” folks with the “trade” people in the environmental movement, who embrace market solutions to environmental problems. These groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, favour run-of-river power because the emergency is so great that only businesses can move quickly enough to bring about solutions.

      “This looks to me like a Naomi Klein disaster-capitalism scenario,” he noted. “There’s a disaster. The planet is on fire. Therefore, the solution is capitalism, which is ironic given what happened on Wall Street just recently.”

      The market-oriented environmentalists trumpet trade, such as the sale of energy-efficient light bulbs and organic juice. And he said that those “cap" environmentalists who practise civil disobedience will rarely get money from U.S. foundations.

      Peerla cited Tzeporah Berman, a Cortes Island climate-change campaigner, as an example of an activist who crossed over from practising civil disobedience to embracing business environmentalism. In her 20s, she led protests against clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound. Then Berman became a negotiator to save the forest. “Now, she calls herself a facilitator,” Peerla said. “What’s the next step?”¦Corporate director?”

      Berman, like Suzuki, has spoken out in favour of carbon-neutral, run-of-river power as a necessary measure to combat climate change. Peerla, however, said it appears to him that there is no transparency and no accountability in the approval of these projects. He speculated that the premier might go so far as to eliminate the B.C. Utilities Commission as a necessary measure to deal with a planetary emergency. This would please former mining speculators who now stake their claims on B.C. rivers. “Again, it’s the trade-style solution,” Peerla claimed.

      He added that Wall Street capitalists are “licking their chops” at the prospect of trading carbon credits in response to the disaster of climate change. “Some are saying that’s the next speculative bubble,” he said.

      Can Canada sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase economic growth?

      Derek Lee
      Vancouver landscape architect

      “It’s very possible. It takes time, but I think that there’s a lot of economic spinoff, or economic benefit, from fixing the problems that we’ve created over the past 50 or 100 years. For example, the automotive industry. All the technology that would go into creating an emissions-free car is an opportunity for a lot of different industries and companies.”

      Jane Sterk
      Leader, Green Party of B.C.

      “I think it’s possible to sharply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. I think there is a fallacy if we believe that we can have unlimited economic growth. The Green party supports strong, resilient, local self-sufficient economies. So there would be lots of economic activity. It just wouldn’t be based on consumption.”

      Jock Finlayson
      Executive vice president, Business Council of B.C.

      “In the long term I think it can be done, but it’s going to take decades to move to new energy systems. I’m very pessimistic that large greenhouse-gas reductions can be achieved quickly at a low cost. I simply don’t buy that at all. It may be necessary to do it, but the cost is going to be significant. That’s especially true for a place like Canada.”

      Geri Tramutola
      2008 Work Less Party city council candidate

      “The answer is yes, because the form of economic growth that we need is not industrial growth; rather, we need growth in different sectors, such as sustainable agriculture, education, the arts, in small at-home businesses. This type of work does not cause massive increases in greenhouse-gas emissions.”



      Evil Eye

      Dec 17, 2009 at 8:03am

      Ha, ha, ha - this must be a joke, Capitalism has no morals, no humanity, all it cares about is money and the more money made - the better. Capitalism has become a sick and dated religion practiced by the wealthy elites and wealthy elite wannabees.

      Tzeporah Berman is a not so wealthy elite who want to become a very wealthy elite so she has sucked up to Campbell big time. The big casualty of course is the environment and like so many Judases before Tzeporah Berman has sold out for her own version of 30 pieces of silver.

      Berman is a yesterdays person, like David Suzuki, and should be treated as such - ignore the b****.


      Dec 17, 2009 at 9:19am

      A good article, and a sensible cautionary comment from Jock Finlayson.

      Economists are not of one mind on this issue. Some favour a carbon tax, others a cap and trade system, and some believe both are needed. I do take issue to some degree with Peerla's division of the cap and trade remedy into two distinct parts. Any serious proposal recommends them in combination, for without the cap, the permits will trade for nothing.

      Does Wall Street have something to gain from trading permits? Sure. They've been trading acid rain permits for years, and that measure has worked in solving the acid rain problem. I guess you could say it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and who better qualified than the wretches who brought us the first truly world wide recession in real output since the Thirties.

      Avoiding bubbles is a general problem in managing financial markets, not something unique to trading pollution permits. The biggest bubbles we have had are in residential real estate, ... and isn't it just passing strange that not one of the better financed Vancouver-based ENGOs want to talk about that bubble, or what it means for socio-economic sustainability of real, daily life in this region? For example, what does over-priced residential real estate mean for the supply of either agricultural or industrial land, and therefore for local food production and local industrial employment?

      Rod Smelser

      Randy James

      Dec 17, 2009 at 1:25pm

      The "green energy" like run of the river hydro, has an impact on the climate by reducing the carbon absorbing plants through their removal to make way for the hydro lines, buildings, and penstocks. The label of "green" on this energy is a label used to sell the product. The "run of the river" is also just a label as the water is diverted out of the river and there is an impact with rising water temperature. There are many small "run of the river" projects been developed now and the accumulative impact is a huge impact on the carbon footprint.

      Kreative Kaur

      Dec 17, 2009 at 1:29pm


      Are you kidding me????

      cap?i?tal?ism [kap-i-tl-iz-uhm]
      an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, esp. as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

      Seems like you are asking for another dictatorship on top of the one that is already in existence....

      Asking for more taxes for the sake of saving the environment??? Like our tax money hasn't been mis-managed before when other issues came up! Do you really think that any tax money is going to go to sustain the environment, then you are naive!

      The problem is we do not view "nature" with respect because our failing systems have no respect. Capitalism is a broken system making the average person broke!

      I do my diligence as a citizen of this world. I opt for public transportation, I recycle, I compost, etc.... but I do not agree that capitalism is going to save the environment. Individuals need to wake up and grow conscious of the fact that we are a part of nature, not seperate. Then, true change will occur.

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      No it cannot.

      Dec 17, 2009 at 5:25pm

      No it cannot.

      But it can make the ensuing climate disaster less unpleasant for an elite few.


      Dec 17, 2009 at 6:34pm

      Of course capitalism can save the world. I serve the common interest by maximizing self interest. By considering only me, I serve everyone else.
      It's just that simple.

      The Invisible Hand loves you! Have Faith.

      Say Amen and pass the plate.


      Dec 18, 2009 at 7:57am

      Capitalism created the environmental problems and it is not going to fix it. That would hurt the margins, the only thing capitalism cares about. Until we have leaders that lead rather than practice followership little to nothing will be done. After all, the environment is just a commodity for the economy.


      Dec 18, 2009 at 10:56am

      I'd like to know what China and Russia's stances are on climate change, as well as their history in pollution.

      If some of you honestly think that a communist approach is going to help, I'd love to see how long you'd last in one of those two countries.


      Dec 18, 2009 at 12:28pm

      The U.S. Clean Air Act effectively instituted a cap and trade system on sulfur emissions. It's done a reasonable job at reducing incidents of acid rain. Why not try the same for greenhouse gases?

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      Eric Doherty

      Dec 18, 2009 at 1:43pm

      I saw the on-line presentation, and a key point is missing from this discussion - infrastructure spending.

      This study assumes that governments will make the ridiculous choice of spending billions of dollars each year to expand freeways and roads, increasing driving and GHG pollution. Then they model what would happen if governments spent billions more to improve public transit so people will drive less and reduce emissions. We need to look at what would happen if money, and road space, was re-allocated from freeway expansion to cost effective transit.

      Since about half of Canada's carbon footprint comes from transportation, including sources like the up stream emissions from the tar sands, this is a crucial weakness in Mark Jaccard's analysis.

      We don't need economic growth if we just stop being so stupidly wasteful. That is the basic message behind the UK Sustainable Development Commissioner report 'Prosperity Without Growth' at