Paying for the environmental damage they do would render global industries unprofitable overnight

The externalities are massive.

Grist's David Roberts reports on a paper produced by environmental consultancy Trucost, which assess the value of the externalities used by the world's industries, and comes to an astonishing conclusion:

Of the top 20 region-sectors ranked by environmental impacts, none would be profitable if environmental costs were fully integrated. Ponder that for a moment. None of the world’s top industrial sectors would be profitable if they were paying their full freight. None!

Backtracking a bit. An externality is a cost or benefit of production which is not internalised into the cost of production. If I use electricity to make widgets, I have to pay for it; but if I "use" the atmosphere to make widgets, by releasing pollution into it, then I don't have to pay a dime.

What that means is that the standard logic of the free market – that voluntary transactions will always make everyone better off – breaks down. If I make £1 profit from each widget I produce, but cause £2 of damage to the environment, then my incentive is to keep pumping out widgets, even though there's a net loss of £1 to the world for every one I make.

The standard economic response to this problem is to call for externalities to be "priced in". If I have to pay the £2 damage that my pollution causes, I won't make widgets until I clean up the production process.

That is the logic behind calls for a carbon tax, but it actually applies to a lot of environmental problems. The Trucost paper looks at water use, land use, air pollution, land and water pollution, and waste as well as just greenhouse gas emissions, and puts a cost on each of them. And when it does, it finds that a lot of industries might not be profitable if they had to pay the full cost of what they do:

(Click to embiggen)

Coal power generation in Eastern Asia, which generates revenues of $443.1bn, has a natural capital cost of $452.8bn (that's unpriced natural capital – the report already takes into account the various ways in which industries are forced to price in their externalities), largely due to greenhouse gases. Cattle ranching in South America, with revenues of $16.6bn, has capital cost of $353.8bn, due to the unpriced cost of land use. And so on.

You can quibble the figures – and doubtless many will – but what is clear is they are large. Really, really large. Many of the biggest industries in the world can only exist because they don't have to pay the true environmental cost of what they do. The word "unsustainable" is thrown around too much these days, but it seems to fit here.

Argentine Cattle. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.