“Can we have it all?”: The myth of sustainable capitalism

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Words: Elohor Efakpokire (she/her)

We have known for a while now that human activity has been the main driver of Climate change, pushing us dangerously close to environmental catastrophe in our pursuit of economic prosperity. The UN Environment Programme suggests that CO2, which accounts for two thirds of greenhouse gases, is largely the product of burning fossil fuels. 30% of the global population is exposed to deadly heat waves 20 days per year. Mass production has led to increased pollution, deforestation and overconsumption of resources.

Yet as we see world leaders scramble to address the consequences of our globally insatiable appetites, it is difficult to ignore the paradoxical nature of trying to integrate climate action within a capitalist framework. It is a system that is predicated on overconsumption, mass production, and rapid growth, directly contradicting sustainability efforts.

There have been attempts to mitigate effects of climate change through the use of carbon offsetting, particularly by selling carbon credits. Carbon Credits are permits given to companies that allow them to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases as long as they ‘offset’ those emissions. It operates by supporting projects that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere or avoid them all together. Companies are permitted to purchase a set amount of credits, enabling them to periodically decrease carbon emissions.They serve as a financial incentive for companies to reduce their effects on the planet. 

However, carbon offsetting has faced a number of criticisms for being both misleading and an example of greenwashing, as it may not accurately reflect carbon reductions. A report conducted by The Guardian, researched into Verra, the largest certifier of carbon credits,  found that 90% of rainforest credits which are most commonly bought by companies, are likely to be “phantom credits” and do not ‘represent genuine carbon emissions’.  Although Verra claimed these figures were incorrect, The Guardian found that only a handful of Verra rainforest credits actually showed evidence of deforestation projects. Dozens of companies, Shell, Easyjet, and Leon to name but a few, have bought carbon credits from Verra. What is particularly worrying is these issues don’t just arise with just rainforest credits but with every single type of credit sold, highlighting something significantly broken with the offset market. 

Additionally, the brunt of such devastation is often felt far from the doorsteps of the western world with the Global South burdening the majority of the effects of the climate crisis.  Moreover, studies have highlighted how the richest 1% were largely responsible for 5.9bn tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2019. Jonathan Watts, The Guardian editor states ‘from 1990 to 2019 the accumulated emissions of the 1% were equivalent to wiping out last year’s [2022] harvest of EU corn, US wheat, Bangladeshi rice and Chinese soya beans’. The article highlighted that it would take 1,500 years for someone in the bottom 99% to emit the same amount of carbon. 

These staggering numbers reveal that the suffering of climate change falls disproportionately on the shoulders of those in poverty. Oxfam has called for hefty wealth taxes on the super rich and windfall taxes on fossil fuel companies, to support people affected as well as a transition to more sustainable energy sources. 

As the ultrarich jet off, enjoying expensive tastes and superyachts, their hedonism becomes our responsibility. This does not exempt us from our own individual roles but it paints a picture of how the climate crisis, inequality, and capitalism are intertwined with one another.  Japanese author, Kohei Saito, and other scholars have proposed degrowth as a solution to  “ecological scarcity”.  He argues that in order to prevent lethal global warming radical change is necessary. We cannot continue to operate within the same systems and save the planet.

Although I have presented the argument that sustainability measures may be incompatible with capitalism, I am pessimistic about whether the powers that be would be willing to grapple with a world devoid of economic growth. We arrive at a paradox. As Adrienne Buller states, ‘if green capitalism is impossible, it appears to be our only option’. There is yet to be a political coalition that is capable, and also has the desire, to rebuild and transform our economic model. The likelihood of this feels like a distant dream. 

There is, however, hope. A rare positive of the Covid -19 pandemic was that it demonstrated that policies that were once perceived as impossible or unrealistic can be achieved when needs require it. This suggests that the real question may not be whether we can achieve the action needed to combat the climate crisis, but rather if we have the collective will to do so. 


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