Capitalism isn’t bad for the environment

Sep 27 JDN 2459120

There are certainly many legitimate criticisms to be made against capitalism, particularly unregulated, unfettered capitalism. But many of the criticisms the left likes to offer against capitalism really don’t hold water, and one of them is the assertion that capitalism is bad for the environment.

The world’s most polluted cities are largely in India and China. In fact, as China has opened up to world markets and become more capitalist, it has become more ecologically efficient, in the sense of producing far less greenhouse emission per dollar of GDP.

Indeed, the entire world has been getting more efficient on this metric: We now produce about twice as much GDP per ton of CO2 emitted than we did in 1990.

Pollution in the Soviet Union was horrific; even today, many of the world’s most polluted places are in the former Soviet Union. Much of the ecological damage was hidden while the USSR was still in place, but once it collapsed, the damage that Soviet policy had done to the environment became obvious.

If you sort countries by their per-capita greenhouse emissions, the worst offenders are Kuwait, Brunei, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain—small, oil-producing countries in the Middle East. The US and Canada also do pretty badly, and are certainly quite capitalist; but so do Libya, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, not exactly known for their devotion to free markets.

I think this in fact too generous to socialist countries. We really should adjust for GDP per capita. It’s easy to produce zero pollution: Just let everyone starve to death. And if that sounds extreme, consider that millions of people literally did starve to death under Stalin and Mao. It’s a fair question whether we really need the high standard of living we have become accustomed to in the First World; perhaps we could afford to cut back. But clearly some kind of adjustment is necessary: A country is obviously doing better if they can produce more GDP for the same carbon emissions.

Therefore, let’s see what happens when we rank countries by kilograms of CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP. The highest polluters are then the Central African Republic, Belize, Libya, Gambia, Eritrea, Niger, Grenada, Palau… not a First World country among them. CAR produces a horrifying 126 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. The US is near the world average at about 3.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP, and as usual Scandinavia Is Better with about 1 ton of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. China does worse than the US, at about 4.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. Russia and most of the former Soviet Union does substantially worse, generally around 5.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP.

Then again, these figures use production-based accounting; perhaps we should be using consumption-based accounting, so that First World countries can’t simply offshore their emissions. The data is less complete and probably less reliable, but it’s still pretty clear that the highest per-capita emissions are in small oil-exporting countries in the Middle East, like Qatar and Brunei.

Moreover, on consumption-based accounting, the highest emissions per dollar of GDP are in Mongolia, Namibia, Ukraine, South Africa, and Kazakhstan. The US actually does better at 2.6 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP, while Scandinavia is still at about 1 ton of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP. China closes the gap, but still does worse than the US, at about 3.0 tons of CO2 per $10,000 of GDP.

No matter how you slice it, the US just isn’t the world’s worst polluter, and we only look like we are in the top 10 because we are so fabulously rich. If it were generally true that higher wealth always comes with proportionally higher pollution, then perhaps capitalism could be blamed for producing all this pollution—though then we’d have a difficult tradeoff to make between reducing pollution and increasing wealth. But in fact there is wide variation in the ecological efficiency of an economy; nuclearize your energy grid like France did and you can cut your emissions in half. Do whatever Scandanavia does and you can do even better.

Now I suppose it would be fair to say that France and Scandinavia are less capitalist than the United States; they certainly have much stronger social welfare states (including universal healthcare) and more redistribution of wealth. But they’re still quite capitalist. They have robust free-market economies, thousands of for-profit corporations, and plenty of billionaires. France has 41 billionaires among 65 million people, just a slightly lower rate of billionaires-per-capita than the US. Sweden has 31 billionaires among 10 million people, a substantially higher rate of billionaires-per-capita than the US. It may be that the optimal level of capitalism for environmental sustainability is not 100%; but it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near 0% either. National Review overstates the case a little (I mean, they are National Review), but I don’t think they are wrong when they say that socialism is bad for the environment.

Indeed, it seems quite important that France and Scandinavia are democratic (by some measures the most democratic places in the world), while China and Russia are authoritarian. It’s not hard to see why democracy would be good for the environment: It solves the Tragedy of the Commons by including the interests of everyone who is impacted by pollution. Policies that produce really catastrophic pollution tend to get leaders voted out.

The rather surprising result is that empirically there doesn’t appear to be a strong effect of democracy on environmental sustainability either. There’s some evidence that it helps, but it seems to depend upon a lot of factors, and on some measures democracy may actually make matters worse. I honestly don’t have a good explanation for this; I would have expected a really strong benefit, since the theoretical argument is quite strong: Voters have strong reasons to want clean air and water, while dictators don’t (especially water, which they can easily pay to import).


Perhaps capitalism is bad for the environment, but democracy is good, and the two sort of cancel out? But there isn’t even much reason theoretically to think that capitalism would be worse for the environment. Private ownership yields private stewardship, and poisoning your employees and customers is not good business. Yes, some forms of pollution spread out far enough that they become a Tragedy of the Commons; but it’s actually hard to find clear examples where pollution spreads far enough to be a Tragedy of the Commons for a corporation but doesn’t spread far enough to be a Tragedy of the Commons for a whole country. Some multinational corporations are large enough that they probably have more reason to care about the environment than many small countries—Walmart’s total revenue is nearly 15 times higher than Brunei’s total GDP. Indeed, one of the few upsides of concentrated oligopolies is that they are less likely to pollute!

I can understand why it’s tempting to blame capitalism for the degradation of the environment. Indeed, if the argument could stick, it would be a really compelling reason to dismantle capitalism—we simply cannot continue to degrade the environment at the rate we have been for much longer. But empirically it just doesn’t work; whatever determines a country’s ecological sustainability or lack thereof, it’s something subtler than capitalism versus socialism—or even democracy versus authoritarianism.

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