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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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