9 December 2015

Fighting climate change with freedom


It’s been a long tough year and now, to make things worse, the cold winds of winter beckon. Seasonal festivities are our last hope. Admit it. If you can’t find the joy in twinkling lights and cold crowded streets, you might as well go to bed and not wake up until the daffodils are in full bloom.

For those of us who enjoy listening to the greatest Christmas hits on constant repeat (the daily commute is, after all, brightened up by singing along to Driving Home for Christmas), the news is, as usual, at the ready to burst our seasonal bubble. This year, we are all supposed to be worrying about the planet.

World leaders have gathered in Paris to make progress in regard to what is often said to be the greatest challenge of our time, one which “changes everything”. Just as we want to be tucking into turkey dinners and are about to engage en masse in a spot of retail therapy, environmentalists are on hand to highlight the error of our ways. Move over Christmas joy, this is the season to be guilty not the season to be merry. Whether it’s eating meat , turning up the heating so that our toes are toasty warm, or participating in “empty consumerism”, the planet will, it seems, suffer the consequences. The effect on our wallet would seem to be the least of our problems this Christmas.

Capitalism is, once again, the usual suspect. The freedom the system provides to individuals and businesses is set to be reined in. Taxation, regulation and subsidies form the set of interferences we have all come to expect. According to the environmental activist and top-selling author Naomi Klein, the “business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth”. The economic system is, we are told, to blame for rising temperatures and increasing sea levels. Capitalism is, apparently, destroying the planet. The rich take the benefits, leaving the poor across the world vulnerable to the changing weather patterns that result.

Even amongst economists, such as Lord Stern, climate change is said to be “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen”. Businesses free to operate in a world in which they can “externalise” – i.e. ignore – the cost of their impact on the environment are held responsible. By not having to “internalise” the damage they wreak, they fail to take the necessary measures required to ensure that their activities are in line with our life on earth. Consumers are not off the hook either. Our throw-away society and reckless use of water and energy has also come under the spotlight. We are all seemingly too free to simply do as we please without thinking about the consequences.

Making the situation for mother earth all the more difficult is the fact that since the economy deteriorated in 2008, our concern for the environment has taken a back seat. We are all too busy worrying about our jobs and pay-packets to think about the future of the planet. According to one survey, the proportion of people who rated climate change as a “very serious issue” has fallen from 63% in 2009 to just under half this year. Furthermore, of the twenty countries that have been polled, only four (Canada, France, Spain and the UK) seem to have a majority of the population in favour of their government taking a lead on the climate issue, a number which has halved since 2009. As the economy has slowed, it seems that we are not as willing as we once were to make the short-term economic sacrifices that may be required to protect our environment into the long-term.

Given that tackling global problems requires countries working together actively, rather than passively, this is not a particularly promising sign for the discussions taking place this month. Without consistent pressure from the electorate, leaders are likely to keep talking the talk without walking the walk. The planet is left in the balance.

The prospects look pretty bleak. Talk about spoiling the Christmas joy. However, as a lover of the festive season, I’m not easily put off. There is a rather obvious way out of the current mess – if only we stop blaming the wrong thing. Rather than simply demonising capitalism, we need to turn our attentions to the real problem. It is the elephant in the room, something which environmental campaigners are all too reluctant to talk about, preferring instead to blame “the system” for the problems we face. When correctly diagnosed, It offers a solution that has the power to not only improve our situation in the longer-term, but also to boost our economy from now until the end of time. And, significantly so.

The truth is that our planet is suffering from a serious sex problem. The earth is practically overrun with people, more than seven billion of us, and the reason is that for centuries women have lacked the power they need to control their own fertility. In many countries across the world this is sadly still the case. The planet now pays the price. The human footprint that results is tremendous – and it is projected to increase significantly. By 2100, the UN estimates with a 95% probability that there will be between 9.5 and 13.3 billion of us making earth our home. Assuming that birth and death rates remain as they are today, the number could be as high as 28 billion.

Thankfully, the solution is simple. Rather than trampling on people’s freedoms, we instead need to extend them. Giving women across the world the freedom they need to take charge of their own bodies – to be in control of of their own baby-making capacity – has the ability to significantly lower population growth and, with it, to keep the human race in better balance with the earth. Financially it’s a no-brainer. Whilst we are all used to lists of the top ten ways to save the planet, from wind power through to eating less meat and reusing carrier bags, perhaps the cheapest and highest impact method is often left out: contraception.

Funding family planning services is by far one of the most cost-effective ways to tackle climate change. Pound-for-pound it delivers a greater return for the planet than does solar, nuclear and wind power, second generation biofuels or carbon storage. Whilst it takes only $7 spending on family planning to reduce carbon emissions by around one metric ton, to get the same bang for your buck using low-carbon energy-reduction technologies would leave you out of pocket by $32. But, despite the glaring difference, most of our focus is on the latter instead of the former.

Despite the facts, environmentalists are often all too reluctant to confront the possibility that excessive population growth is central to environmental damage. After all, it’s much easier and more popular to blame capitalism. To be fair, confronting population growth brings to mind a world in which politicians interfere with the most intimate decisions we make in life, and the types of forced sterilisation programmes used in the past, at the hands of which the most vulnerable women have tended to suffer. It is, however, about time campaigners stopped pussyfooting around the issue and embraced the benefits of freedom.

Reducing population growth is not about forcing women (and their partners) to have fewer children than they would freely choose, it is about giving women the tools they need to avoid unintended pregnancy. It involves recognising that far too many women across the world still lack the types of freedoms that some of us are lucky enough to take for granted, and then working harder to extend those rights to other women.

The reality is that in poorer countries, around four in ten pregnancies are unintended. Even in rich countries like the USA and Britain, a surprisingly high number of births to younger women are the result of unintentional pregnancy. These pregnancies are almost entirely avoidable if women have the right information and if they have easy access to all forms of contraception. Not only would providing such services improve the lives of women, it would also help the planet and, as I have discussed at length previously, would have significant economic benefits: improving economic growth, lowering poverty and reducing inequality.

If women are given the freedom they need to make their own choices about fertility, it will allow them to keep their family’s head above water and will work in the best interests of the economy and the planet as a whole. The resultant slower population growth means higher wages for workers at the bottom of the ladder and greater incentives for firms to invest, improving productivity and growth. It also helps to limit our footprint on the planet. This is nothing more than an application of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: allowing women to do what is right for themselves can have positive effects on society as a whole, helping the economy and the planet. Any economist should be happy to embrace it – as should any environmental campaigner.

The situation our planet has arrived at has resulted not so much from people having too much freedom but, instead, from having too little. Reproduction has taken charge of womankind and, with it, the human race has overpowered the planet.

Tackling climate change is easy so long as we correctly diagnose the cause. So, let’s stop placing all the blame at the door of capitalism and instead turn our eyes to the lives of poorer women across the world. Freedom is our friend and not our foe.

Dr Victoria Bateman is an Economic Historian and Fellow in Economics, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and Fellow of the Legatum Institute, London.