Daily Archives: March 10, 2008

Dept. of the Bleeding Obvious: Subsidies are not capitalist

Photo credit: “smokestacks,” Flickr/curran.kelleher

I don’t have a Ph.D., so maybe that’s why I have a difficult time following the mental gymnastics needed for Thomas Homer-Dixon and David Keith (Ph.D.s) to spin massive government subsidies for carbon-capture as a free-market measure:

Environmental groups are wrong to argue that we shouldn’t use government funds to support promising technologies before the mess is straightened out. We don’t have the time to wait, because Earth’s climate is changing fast, now. Without carbon prices or regulation, public funding is the only way to ensure that CCS technology gets going quickly. …

CCS will be a big-industry technology: major implementation will require huge outlays of capital and armies of scientists, engineers and construction workers. It will also generate huge profits. So when environmental groups saw that industry representatives dominated the blue-ribbon panel, they assumed that the energy industry was once again positioning itself to line its pockets, and attacked its recommendations. As Dave Martin of Greenpeace Canada put it, “Carbon capture is a public relations smokescreen for the tar sands and coal-fired electricity generation.”

It’s time that Canada’s environmental groups freed themselves of this ideological straitjacket. They need to acknowledge that modern capitalism is the most dynamic, innovative and adaptive economic system human beings have ever invented. It’s true that capitalism has fuelled our climate problem, and that many big businesses have lobbied hard to block serious action, but we’re not going to solve the problem without capitalism’s help.

I don’t want to be snide. These are serious guys, and there’s a lot of truth in much of their Globe essay. There is a lot of unhelpful anti-capitalism built into a lot of environmentalism, advanced by people for whom saving the planet really is a stalking horse for disapproving of other people’s lifestyles on non-environmental principles (“a deep suspicion of big business and big industry that’s a residue of the leftism of the original environmental movement”).

Carbon-capture is almost certainly a necessary immediate response to an immediate crisis, and objecting to it because its not good enough in itself is imprudent. Sure, it’s not enough. And giving four years’ warning, as Environment Minister John Baird did today of his plans to require all oilsands projects to use the technology by 2012, is asking for a rush of dirty plants between now and then.

It’s a fair concern — that carbon-capture will be a stopgap that distracts us enough that we won’t solve the actual underlying problem — but that’s making better the enemy of the good. A world with extensive use of carbon-capture technology is a lot better than a world without it, whatever else is going on.

But spinning government subsidies for the technology as a capitalistic measure is, frankly, bollocks. Subsidies are, in the most generous possible assessment, a necessary evil. They will interfere with the construction of wind and tidal and solar power, unless such projects are subsidized even more to compensate. They will put off pricing of carbon emissions, if only because the federal policy apparatus can only handle so many massive innovations at a time. They will take money that taxpayers would have spent on something else and commit it to helping large corporations that — even if Homer-Dixon and Keith dismiss the significance of this fact — are mostly very profitable.

If you think the subsidies are necessary, by all means say so. But let’s not pretend they’re something they aren’t.