The environment has become a growing concern in China in recent years, which is understandable given the terrible smog suffered by some of China’s biggest cities. However, as with most things, when the government takes it upon itself to solve a problem, it generally worsens that problem. Not convinced? Read on for some examples of how policies and activities with the best of intentions can lead to destructive consequences.
Friends of the Earth, Earthwatch, Environmental Defense Fund, Green Cross International, The Climate Project, World Resources Institute, WWF, and of course the inevitable Greenpeace.
These are just some of the environmental organizations that have for decades been pushing for – and in many cases outright lobbying for – ever more stringent environmental regulations to save the Earth and humanity from supposed catastrophe. Undoubtedly the majority of the people involved with these and other organizations are well-intentioned individuals that sincerely believe in their cause. That is not to say, however, that they are absolved from scrutiny as to the consequences of their (political) actions; you judge a tree by its fruits.
As it turns out, it can be quite convincingly argued that the very people and organizations purportedly fighting for protection of the environment are achieving much different outcomes, and one does not have to dig very deep at all to discover what those outcomes really are. As you read this, understand that this is not a ringing endorsement of a throw-away society, but rather an honest attempt at dissecting the arguments made for increasingly strict environmental policies and examining the results thereof.
1. Tilting the balance in favor of large corporations
“Green” regulations, like any and all forms of regulation, disproportionally hurt small and medium-sized businesses. After all, large (multinational) corporations have the financial resources and manpower that their smaller competitors lack to deal with the regulatory burden. As such each and every new law passed further threatens the very existence of mom-and-pop stores in your neighborhood. And unlike multinationals they don’t have the lobbying power to turn the regulatory tide, either. The result? Fewer local stores in your area, forcing you to drive farther away for your groceries. True, you will likely plan ahead to avoid having to go to the store every day, but that means you now need a car to transport all those groceries in. You might not have needed that car to begin with if you could just stop by your local grocer that’s now gone out of business.
2. Increasing pollution with “green” energy
Wind turbines don’t come falling from the sky. They require vast amounts of steel produced in steel mills and the fiber composite that make up the blades is manufactured in a chemical plant. Then there is the issue of rare earth metals (or rare earths), used in everything from electric car batteries to wind turbines to solar panels. Nearly all production today takes place in China, where both people and the environment suffer due to the hazardous and radioactive byproducts released in the process. Mines and processing plants are struggling to keep up with the demand artificially pushed up by governments in the form of tax incentives and massive subsidies.
3. Impoverishing people
Speaking of subsidies, one of the major recipients has been the “green jobs” industry. In an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, the argument is that specific policies would lead not only to a better environment, but also boost the economy through the creation of “good jobs”. Though the proponents of green jobs have yet to find agreement on what defines such a job, what has become clear is that the net effect on employment is actually negative. In the UK 3.7 jobs are lost for every green job while in Spain the ratio stands at 2.2 jobs lost per green job. Poof!
To make matters worse, prominent green jobs reports such as the UNEP report even go so far as to rail against high-productivity jobs lest they “pose the dual challenge of environmental impact and unemployment”. Apparently the report’s authors are totally oblivious to the fact that increased productivity is what makes a society wealthier, and that the inefficient use of resources for the sake of “spreading the work” will inevitably make everyone poorer.
It goes without saying that poor people will naturally care less about the environment and more about where their next meal is going to come from. While rich people have the luxury of worrying about the environment, poor people do not. So the wealthier a society, the more likely it is to take good care of the environment.
4. Wasting resources mandating recycling
I know this is going to sound counterintuitive – as it did to me – but recycling does not always save energy or money. The latter makes sense considering the top-down approach that has dominated environmental initiatives; if there was any money in recycling, force would not have been necessary to bring it about. New York City’s recycling program, for instance, costs the taxpayer almost double what it would cost to just throw glass, metal, and plastic away.
Still, it would be one thing to spend all that taxpayer money on recycling if it actually saved resources. Unfortunately even that is not necessarily the case. Trees are planted and grown on tree farms specifically to make paper and as such do not contribute to deforestation. Other materials such as glass and aluminum can be effectively recycled, benefitting both the environment and the economy. However, businesses involved with the production of these materials have an inherent incentive to recycle anyway, so there is no need for regulatory requirements there.
5. Carbon taxes
Carbon taxes help funnel money into wind and solar power, which also come with environmental problems even in addition to the aforementioned. Solar thermal technology, for instance, consumes huge quantities of water – you know, the substance that is generally already lacking in areas where solar panels are the preferred “renewable energy” source (e.g. California, southern Spain).
Solar panel fields and wind farms are also very land-intensive, and wind farms negatively impact animals in the form of habitat loss and fragmentation. Besides, few people find wind turbines scattered over the countryside to be of benefit to the landscape. Some even suffer negative health effects that have been linked to living near a wind farm.
Finally, carbon taxes aggravate the aforementioned problems of favoring large over small businesses and impoverishing people.
Given these issues it would behoove environmentalists to consider the unintended consequences of their push for continued “climate action”, even aside from the debate over whether or not climate change is man-made to begin with. Having blind faith in politicians and special interest groups that try to greenwash their agenda to appeal to your sense of justice may not be the best strategy if you really care about the environment.
 Green Jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). (2008). p.6.