Category: Enviroment

What’s Wrong with the CleanBC Plan

by Clayton Welwood, 2017 candidate for North Vancouver-Seymour

From a political point of view, there’s much to dislike about carbon taxes. But from an economic point of view, the idea behind a carbon tax isn’t a bad one: the potential harms caused by greenhouse gas emissions are delayed, dispersed and difficult to determine, but still likely real, so a putting a price on these emissions will incentivize producers to reduce them, and motivate consumers to seek lower or zero emission alternatives.

For such a scheme to be effective in combating climate change, it would need to meet a number of criteria:

  1. result in a high enough “price” on carbon to significantly change patterns of energy production and consumption
  2. provide a framework where real innovation is possible and potentially profitable
  3. not make people poorer

I’ll address each of these criteria separately, explain why they’re necessary, and show why the provincial government’s new CleanBC Plan doesn’t do a good job of meeting them.

Let’s first acknowledge that for any GHG emission plan to have an effect on the climate, there needs to be similar efforts across the globe. British Columbia only produces a fraction of 1% of the world’s GHG emissions, and so from a practical point of view what we do here may not matter much, even though from a moral point of view, it’s important that we try to do our part to avert serious environmental harms. So, for this thought experiment, let’s assume other jurisdictions are also pulling their weight.

Let me also state that I believe there is a moral case for a carbon tax that some libertarians could accept. The standard libertarian view is that harms from pollution should be settled in the courts, e.g. if you can prove that my factory’s smoke caused your lung disease, I’ll have to pay you compensation. The thing with CO2 and some other greenhouse gasses is that they aren’t pollutants in this sense, and it’s a long chain of causation dispersed across time and space before anyone is harmed. It’s possible that private actors on their own will come up with solutions that reduce GHG emissions enough to avoid severe warming, or that mitigate its impacts so that few people are harmed. But given that the earth may hit a point of no return in the next couple decades where rapid global warming becomes irreversible, it may be prudent for governments to set a framework that fosters this innovation. If governments can do this in a way that on net, doesn’t make citizens significantly poorer or less free, then imposing such a carbon tax is probably better than doing nothing. And yes, taxes are extortion; but at least with taxes on the sale of particular goods, you can forego the purchase of those goods (assuming there’s an alternative, which is exactly the point of a carbon tax).

Getting the Price Right

The BC government’s goal with the CleanBC plan is to reduce GHG emissions to 40% below 2007 levels by 2030, and 80% below by 2050, which seems to be in line with the level of cuts the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is recommending. The CleanBC plan states that the carbon tax will contribute 1.8 Megatonnes in GHG reductions towards BC’s 2030 target. This represents about 10% of the total, with the rest of the reductions coming from regulatory measures, such as mandating that all new vehicles sold in BC be zero-emission.

BC’s carbon tax is currently $35 per tonne, going up $5 a year until it reaches $50/tonne in 2021. That works out 7.8 cents per litre of gasoline and 6.6 cents per cubic meter of natural gas at current rates. The demand for gasoline is relatively inelastic, and this carbon tax cost (one of many taxes on gasoline) on its own is not enough to make many consumers look for alternatives. Even with government rebates, the cost of purchasing an electric vehicle is out of reach for most families in BC, and even many urbanites aren’t willing to make the sacrifice in convenience that comes with alternate modes of transportation such cycling or public transit. A carbon tax at this level may however encourage some people to choose more fuel-efficient cars or make fewer trips by car.

To really change people’s transportation habits would require a much higher carbon tax. If it were 10 times higher, say 78 cents per litre on gasoline, it would make driving much less attractive. Likewise, if natural gas were 66 cents/m3, many consumers would switch to electric appliances and heaters.

But this would result in massive costs. Just think about what would be involved in removing natural gas fired boilers in every building and replacing them with electric space and hot water heaters. Even if electricity prices didn’t increase, such an outlay for new equipment would make everyone significantly less well-off, which conflicts with requirement #3 above.

Making Real Innovation Possible

Again, we have to assume that the rest of the world is on a similar path, and that they’re developing low-carbon technologies that we can adopt here in BC. However, some local innovation is also required, even if only in the form of process innovations that allow local organizations and communities to run more efficiently.

Take public transit, for example. While the Skytrain is good for those that have access to it, bus service in many parts of BC, and even greater Vancouver is very infrequent and slow compared to a trip in a private automobile. Private alternatives to public transit, such as carpooling, ride-hailing services like Uber, or privately-run mini-bus services would be much more attractive to consumers if a high carbon tax were in place. The resultant demand for such services could be enough to push the government to deregulate the transportation sector to allow such private for-profit operators.

The problem with the CleanBC plan is that it combines a carbon tax with specific regulations on how emissions reductions targets are to be achieved in each sector. A few examples: the step building code lays out the details on how buildings are to be constructed to reduce heating requirements; a mandate for 15% of natural gas used to be renewable; a requirement that by 2040 all new cars and light-duty trucks sold be zero-emission.

What if these measures conflict with other social goals, such as making life more affordable for regular British Columbians (which is supposed to be the center-piece of the NDP’s policy agenda)? For example, the step code will raise the cost of housing when British Columbians already pay 31% of their income towards shelter (more than any other province), and the required renewable component will complicate supply-chain logistics for natural gas providers, increasing the cost for consumers.

And what if these aren’t the best steps to get us to a low-carbon future? What if greater reductions in emissions can be achieved at a lower cost by converting vehicles to run on natural gas instead of gasoline? What if the money spent on expensive building retrofits could go further if spent on public transit? What if the best bang for our buck can be achieved by developing technologies that can pull carbon out of the atmosphere?

No one knows for certain what the best approach to fighting climate change is, but history has shown us that when the price of one good becomes too high, markets are able to generate alternatives. The freer the market, the faster the alternatives appear and are adopted. The CleanBC regulations limit the scope for innovation that a high price on carbon is supposed to foster.

Not Making People Poorer

Many of the proposals favoured by governments to deal with climate change involve making fossil fuels more expensive, pushing consumers to switch to other sources of energy. But if the green energy sector hasn’t developed renewable alternatives enough to provide energy at equivalent prices, instruments like heavy carbon taxes or bans on coal-fired power plants can condemn people to energy poverty. This is exactly what happened in Ontario, where due to such policies by the previous government, energy prices rose 71% over a decade, forcing families of limited means to choose between heating and eating. Such policies are broadly unpopular, and were a major factor in voters deciding to remove Kathleen Wynn’s Liberal government in favour of Doug Ford’s Conservatives.

Such policies are not only politically difficult, they also represent a step backward in the larger trend towards a wealthier populace and a cleaner environment. The Environmental Kuznets Curve describes the relationship between per capita income and a clean environment, hypothesizing that once a society reaches the level of economic development where the majority of people’s basic needs are met, further growth leads to less pollution and better environmental stewarship.

But if necessities like home heating and transportation suddenly become a lot more expensive due to government carbon policies, this could cause people to de-prioritize environmental issues and make them suspect of future environmental reforms that come in the form of taxes, bans and restrictions. If the goal is to eliminate the use of fossil fuels over the course of a generation or two, such approaches may be counter-productive if they provoke too much public resentment. The yellow vest protests in France, which have lasted for two months and are the country’s largest since the 1968 uprising, indicate that this may have already happened. Carbon taxes are the issue that sparked the protests, which spread from Paris to the rest of France and have been picked up in various places around the world.

The gold standard for a carbon tax is a revenue neutral one; in other words, one where the increased tax on fuel is offset by other tax reductions, meaning people aren’t on net any worse off. BC was the first province in Canada to implement a carbon tax, and as promised, for the first few years after its introduction in 2008, it was revenue neutral, with the offset coming in the form of reduced income tax. This doesn’t mean that no one was made poorer by it. It’s pretty easy to imagine someone who pays little income tax (let’s say a start-up entrepreneur who hasn’t yet turned a profit, but still requires a significant amount of fuel to run her business) who would be paying much more in carbon taxes than she gets in income tax reductions. Still, the economic damage of the early-years BC carbon tax was kept to a minimum, which is more than we can say for most taxes.

BC’s carbon tax hasn’t been revenue neutral for years though, and the current NDP-Green government has no intention of making it so, even if they are offering a Climate Action Tax Credit of $135 per year to low income British Columbians. But if you’re making over $50k per year, you won’t be eligible for that, so the current carbon tax makes most British Columbians on net worse off.

Carbon Taxes: Nice in theory, poor in practice

BC is estimated to take in $865 million in the current fiscal year from the carbon tax. As Kenneth P. Green from the Fraser Institutes argues, it would take only a 2% cut in provincial spending to achieve $865M in savings, which could be returned to taxpayers to make the tax revenue neutral again. As the price on carbon rises, the BC government expects revenue to grow by 16.5% per year for the next 3 years, making it a more vital source of revenue, and the possibility of it becoming revenue-neutral again more distant.

Because political opportunism nearly always trumps good science and good economics, the carbon tax is for me, a dead-end in dealing with climate change. Notice how now that the feds are forcing a carbon tax on the entire country, none of the other provinces are seriously considering making their carbon taxes revenue neutral, now that BC has given up on the idea. If Libertarians held the balance of power in the legislature, or even had a vocal MLA there, there would be hope revenue neutrality could be restored. The BC Libertarian Party’s approach to taxes and spending goes further than that; we want to triple the basic exemption for income tax, which would put British Columbians in a much better position to absorb the costs of transitioning to a low carbon economy.

First, do no harm (with subsidies)

When libertarians look at any problem, one of the first things we ask is “how is government aggravating it?” Politicians and bureaucrats are very quick to blow their own horn on all the things they’re doing to fight climate change (however ineffectual) but not so quick to mention the things they do that keep a fossil fuel economy entrenched.

While BC doesn’t directly subsidize its oil and gas industry, the province does offer several royalty credit programs that can offset the costs of drilling new wells or building infrastructure. There’s a sensible logic to this: government coffers will be better off in the long run the more such royalty and tax-paying operations start producing. These programs may have been a good idea when they were introduced a decade or so ago, when gas prices were high, but with the massive increase in shale gas drilling in the US in recent years, the price of natural gas is lower and looks to remain so indefinitely. The price of oil has fared even worse, especially over the past year.

If the government’s goal is to increase tax and royalty revenue, the main problem isn’t the amount of resources being pulled out of the ground, it’s the fact that they sell for so little due to inability to reach markets in other parts of the country or overseas. A much better approach for the provincial government to take would be to streamline the complicated approval and regulatory regimes that seem to be preventing pipelines from being built, and publicize these efforts to restore some level of investor confidence in BC’s oil and gas sector. A healthier investment climate would make it easy for the province to scale back or get rid of royalty credit programs, and allowing these resources to be shipped by pipeline instead of train would also reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned in transportation.

Second, stop keeping highways artificially cheap

Transportation represents the second largest source of GHG emissions in BC, after industrial activities. BC’s highways are paid for in part by a fuel tax of 14.5 cents per litre on gasoline and other motor fuels (25.5 cents in Vancouver and 20 cents in Victoria, as there are additional levies for public transit). If the goal is to fund the highways through a tax that motorists have a hard time avoiding, then the fuel tax does its job, but it does a poor job of making those who use the provincial highways the most pay for them. In effect, those who drive mostly on city streets paid for by their municipal taxes are subsidizing drivers who use the highways all the time.

The other problem is that without some kind of fees for use of the highways, the sections that bring commuters in and out of major city centers get backed up on a regular basis. The rush hour traffic on highway #1 going in and out of Vancouver is truly awful, not only resulting in hundreds of wasted hours per year for each commuter, but also no small amount of unnecessary GHG emissions. Instead of trying to develop some kind of rational pricing scheme, the province has gone the other way, getting rid of the tolls on the Coquihalla and the Port Mann.

Replacing the fuel tax with a system of modest tolls on the highways would allow commuters to make more rational decisions on how they get around. It would make carpooling and public transit more attractive, and result in fewer emissions from idling vehicles. Speaking of carpooling, in the absence of any data to show that HOV lanes have been of any use in encouraging it, a better idea may be to go the route Seattle has, and convert them to express toll lanes.

Third, discourage clearcut logging on crown lands

Forestry is regulated in BC through a system of Tree Farm Licences that allow forestry companies to cut timber on crown lands. Environmental regulations apply, but clearcut logging remains the standard practice in the province. Companies are, however, required to replant the areas they cut.

Aside from the oceans, forests are the earth’s largest carbon sinks, storing roughly 100 times as much carbon per acre as fields planted with crops. But if new trees are planted to replace the ones cut down, there’s no net increase in GHG’s, right? Some recent scientific studies cast doubt on that by showing that up to 50% of the carbon stored in mature forests is stored in the soil, and because clearcut logging seriously disturbs the soil, some of this carbon may end up in the atmosphere. Branches, stumps and other wood waste left behind also release CO2 as they rot or are burned. Furthermore, consider the fact that a mature tree adds more wood mass each year than a young tree, meaning that mature forests pull much more carbon out of the atmosphere than young forests.

A different land tenure system for forestry, one that allowed for longer term leases, smaller parcels, or outright private ownership, could likely make selective logging a more viable business strategy. Setting the stumpage rate (royalty for timber cut on crown lands) higher, and removing the heavy government involvement in how timber is priced and sold (i.e. allowing a free market in logs) could also aid the shift from clearcutting to selective logging, which would help BC’s forests become better carbon sinks.

Lastly, reduce business regulation and let innovation flourish

The main problem with the CleanBC plan is that by specifying how GHG’s are to be reduced, the best opportunities for private sector technological solutions to climate change spurred on by a rising price on carbon may be missed. Furthermore, the amount of business regulations (not just environmental regulations), the shortage of land zoned for industrial use, and business taxes (including the new payroll tax to replace MSP) all act to discourage entrepreneurship. As much as the CleanBC plan touts BC as a center for the development of green tech, this industry could be much larger if the provincial government and municipalities had regulatory frameworks, taxes, and land-use policies that were more business-friendly. Instead, the province has opted to keep these barriers to entrepreneurship in place while creating tax credits and subsidies for green projects bureaucrats and politicians know and favour.

What they don’t realize is that the big technological breakthroughs that have a real shot of averting or mitigating climate change probably aren’t on their horizon yet. Whether it’s bio-diesel produced on a massive scale by algae farms, grand forests of synthetic or genetically engineered trees to capture mega-tonnes of CO2, a new method of generating renewable energy that doesn’t require huge capital investments, or some other solution no one has heard of yet, BC could the place where it is developed if the conditions for innovation and investment are right.

But what if whatever BC does, climate change still occurs?

It will, we can bet on that. The climate has been changing since the earth was formed, no reason it’s going to stop now. Human beings will be able to adapt to climate change, as long as we have the resources to do so. It’s important we don’t sacrifice the fundamentals of our prosperity (a free enterprise economic system, rule of law, and a culture that embraces innovation and entrepreneurship) in the battle against climate change. If these fundamentals can be preserved, it’s safe to assume that our children and grandchildren will be wealthier than we are and in a good position to deal with negative effects on the climate.

BC’s ecosystems, however, aren’t getting wealthier generation by generation. Increased human activity, including the logging of old growth forests and the conversion of marine, river and inland habitats to other uses, means that maintaining the health of these ecosystems is already challenged. I believe that the province’s environmental efforts should focus on restoring these local ecosystems rather than fighting a global problem that may well occur no matter what we do. Restoring salmon spawning areas, protecting wetlands from being turned into low-density housing, and starting or expanding breeding programs for threatened species are just some of the initiatives that private sector environmental organizations can take the lead on. But the provincial government can still play an important role in terms of collecting data on ecosystem health and ensuring that resource extraction on public lands is carried out in an environmentally sensitive way. Ultimately though, it would be good to see more of BC’s public lands turned over to First Nations, municipalities, conservation trusts, and private owners, who are in a better position and have better incentives to steward their land, than bureaucrats in Victoria.

Today’s Earth Day Campaigns Suck, We Need New Ones

Another Earth Day is upon us, with its moralizing and calls to superficial acts that signal collective concern for the natural environment. I’d like to examine how this sort of activism falls short, and see if libertarian philosophy has anything to add to deepening the conversation about living sustainably.

Looking at the official Earth Day Canada website, we are entreated to “consume less” and “play more”. The “play more” side of the campaign encourages kids to play outside, and they have a fundraising drive to raise money for enriched play playgrounds for kids. While this is certainly a worthy goal in terms of promoting the health and psychological development of children, I fail to see any direct connection with environmental sustainability.

The “consume less” side of the campaign tells us “reducing consumption is a moral imperative and will make you happy! Buying things and acquiring wealth does not make us happy.” Blanket statements like this fly in the face of psychological research and our own first-hand experience. Consuming less has been a focus of the environment movement for over two decades. If we look just at plastics, which this campaign targets, we see that global production was 335 billion tonnes, and it is increasing by 3.8% per year. With global population growth, and more of the poor moving into the middle class and into cities, consumption of plastics will continue to grow, as will consumption of meat, oil, gas, timber, concrete, and pretty much anything else people find useful. If consuming less is a moral imperative, it probably rests at lower priority than other imperatives, such as providing goods for one’s family at a reasonable cost. It also plays second fiddle to other psychological imperatives, such as seeking esteem from one’s society through displays of consumption.

As far as it goes, it’s fine for a non-profit organization to advocate for a reducing-personal- consumption mentality. Some people, those who are more altruistic to begin with, will certainly respond to such calls, and forgo some consumption. Heck, they may even be happier for it, assuming they made the choice voluntarily. But if an organization really wants to reduce harm to the planet’s ecosystems, surely there must be more effective ways to do so.

Libertarians tend to recognize the acquisitive nature of human beings. We see in it a psychological driver for capitalism, which we see as the best system humans have found to date for generating wealth. Without the desire to acquire things for personal consumption, the profit motive wouldn’t exist, and capitalism would never have got off the ground. And if acquisitiveness topped out at a certain point (say, after a person’s need for food, clothing and shelter were met), capitalism would stall out once people started earning more than a few dollars a day. What we see of course is that regular people are now consuming more than their ancestors would have dreamed possible even for royalty, and doing it for a fraction of what it cost in real terms in previous generations. The fact that the human population has bloomed to billions and is able to consume at such a level without triggering a Malthusian crash is a miracle to be celebrated.

But it presents us with important questions: is all this prosperity coming at the cost of the other creatures we share the earth with, or even the earth’s living systems themselves? If so, could this ultimately lead to the demise (or at least impoverishment) of humans, if and when these natural systems can no longer support us? What moral responsibility then do we have to ensure that the earth’s systems stay intact for future generations of humans and other creatures?

I realize that not everyone is ready to wrestle with philosophical questions like this, and so environmentalist campaigns need to simplify them. However, I think that focusing on reducing consumption misses the mark entirely–it will never really resonate with most people because of our acquisitive nature, something passed down to modern humans via natural selection through millennia of scarcity.

So how do we allow for increasing levels of consumption while reducing harm to the environment? To answer that we need to remind ourselves how the earth is harmed by consumption, lest we conclude that all consumption is inherently harmful. Firstly, the earth (and the potential prosperity of future generations) is harmed if we deplete non-renewable resources, like coal or titanium. Secondly, the earth is harmed if pollution is created or habitat destroyed/degraded in the extraction, transportation, and processing of these raw materials. Lastly, there’s the harm that come from the disposal of these resources after use, whether by taking up space in a landfill, leaching toxins during decomposition, or requiring additional resources to recycle. The second and third issues exist to a lesser degree with renewable resources, like corn and wood, but renewable resources are certainly more sustainable than non-renewables.

It’s not surprising then that the environmental movement has focused on renewable resources for some time, and has achieved a good deal of success. The cost of solar panels for example, has come down tremendously in recent years, as growing demand has spurred competition and technological innovation. In this way, the desire to consume isn’t the enemy of sustainability; rather under a free market system, it is a force for positive change.

Why then, does the pace of innovation seem slow in comparison to the pressing need to shift to environmentally sustainable modes of production? The typical examples one hears from today’s environmental movement are: “corporations don’t want to change, they just want to protect their profits” or “industry is resistant to change, so we need more government in green technology”. Often such criticisms are leveled against capitalism in general, because it is always pushing towards greater consumption. By way of rebuttal, I will only say that I do not believe that ending capitalism will rid humans of their acquisitive impulses, and the alternatives to capitalism that have been tried in the past were not any more ecologically sustainable, given the technology humanity had at the time.

One thing libertarianism has to offer in response to the problem of slow development of renewable alternatives is its understanding of the influence of government regulation on an economy. Regulation, when enforced by law, can be see as a joint effort by politicians and the dominant businesses in an industry to stop time. The large businesses that have the resources to lobby government seek to prevent market change by setting up rules that favour the current methods of production over any that may be invented in the future by upstart competitors. Though regulation is often touted as being forward looking, in reality it is backward looking, and normally hostile to innovation.

Building codes and municipal permitting processes are a good example of this. Built into them are assumptions that buildings should be constructed according to familiar designs using familiar materials like wood, concrete and glass. Perhaps a house built of mud and straw would have better thermal properties (and hence use less energy) than one made of wood, but good luck getting your local council to approve the design!

Another example is automobile safety standards, which prescribe in detail how a vehicle must but designed and manufactured to be allowed on US roads. While safety is certainly a worthy goal, and for many buyers will trump other concerns, it limits the flexibility automakers have in developing more sustainable vehicles. For example, the heavy steel frame which is now required in most vehicles (to save occupants in the very unlikely event the car flips upside down) adds significantly to the vehicle’s weight, reducing its fuel efficiency.

In addition to limiting design flexibility, regulation also adds additional costs, not just by mandating more costly designs, but also through permit costs, reporting costs, and lost time in approval processes. Regulation can also bar private enterprise from competing in certain sectors, particularly in Canada where a crown corporations or public bureaucracies often monopolize or control these sectors. Power generation and distribution, sanitation and water, public transportation, medical care and insurance, lotteries and gaming, alcohol sales and distribution, and so on.

To take power generation as an example, most provinces allow homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs, and that may be of interest to those who have the financial means to make the upfront investment and recoup the savings slowly over the years through reduced electricity bills. What would accelerate adoption of solar and other small-scale renewable energy production technologies would be to allow small producers to sell excess electricity to their neighbours. Currently the monopolization of the electricity grid by provincial hydro authorities effectively prevents this. Such public monopolies, while they may have the honourable goal of providing necessities at reasonable prices, inevitably result in wasteful misallocation of resources. Take water utilities for example: typically, users pay a flat fee no matter how much water they use, providing no economic incentive for conservation. This results in strange workarounds during times of scarcity, such as by-laws that ban lawn watering on certain days.

As a rough test on whether it’s true that government regulation deters innovation, we can compare the fruits of two industries. Perhaps the comparison is not completely fair, one being a young industry, the other quite a bit older, but it illustrates the general point. The information technology industry is by and large unregulated beyond the basic regulations that all businesses face. It has produced a great variety of products and services in the few decades it has been around, and continues to do so at an accelerating pace. While there are a few giants dominating much of the market, there are also plenty of new entrepreneurs, the barriers to entry being very low.

Let’s compare IT to what is arguably the most regulated sector of the economy: banking. Central banks control the most basic feature of this industry, the price of money (better known as the interest rates), and regulate in detail how banks are to serve their customers. Banks are protected from competition by rules that make starting a new bank very difficult, and regulatory compliance measures that make running one difficult and expensive. They’re also protected from failure by the government with depositor’s insurance, and in extreme cases (like in 2008/2009), bailouts. While Wall Street banks may have invented some new financial instruments in recent decades, and most banks now offer many of their services online, for most small depositors and borrowers, the services have not changed much, and the experience of dealing with a bank often feels overly bureaucratic when compared with customer service we get in other industries.

There are other ways that governments prop up incumbent businesses and deter new entrepreneurs, such as subsidies and taxes, but I hope the examples above illustrate how government regulation limits innovation. If we can’t get everyone to voluntarily reduce their consumption (we can’t), and forcing them to reduce it is unethical (it probably is), then we desperately need innovation in renewable energy and resources if we are to move towards a sustainable future. Removing or reducing regulations on industry is one way to do that. What about environmental regulations, do they have to go to? It depends on the type.

Fines that punish those that pollute the commons are legitimate, and provide economic incentives for industry to come up with cleaner technologies. However regulations that specify specific technologies that industry must use are not helpful in the long run because they attempt to freeze industries at current (or past) levels of technological development.

Another form of environmental regulation is quotas, such as the allowable catch of a particular marine species that fishermen are granted by the government. This seems to be a very crude way of forestalling a tragedy of the commons, due to the impossibility of determining what the optimal size of the species’ population is (fishermen, conservationists and tax/license fee collectors are not likely to agree on the number). In the case of fishing, quotas only incentivize how to catch the most fish in the shortest period of time–not really the type of innovation that would make the industry more sustainable.

So, if we agree hectoring people to consume less is not very effective, and greater innovation in renewables is needed to conserve resources, what could be a better focus of an Earth Day campaign? One could be an informational campaign to let people know about green technologies that are in development or exist already on a small scale. Because the current environmental movement is so focused on blaming business for environmental problems and looking to government for solutions, news about sustainable innovation in the private sector tends to get drowned out.

One very exciting innovation that I’ve heard about recently is the production of biodiesel from algae. Algae produces a much higher oil content than the terrestrial crops currently used for biodiesel, and requires no fertilizer or pesticides to grow. Also, as it isn’t grown in the soil, it doesn’t deplete it, and instead pulls large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air. Algae farms on the ocean would not displace food crops for humans (like growing corn for biodiesel can), and would also provide useful habitat for other marine species.

A second innovation I’ll mention is the use of insects to turn food waste into animal food. The black soldier fly is able to quite efficiently convert compost in high protein larva, which could be used as a substitute for animal and fish protein in food for pets or livestock.

For these kinds of innovations to have a significant environmental impact, they would require existing industries to be disrupted and restructured. They require us to think differently about the products we use, and will likely meet with resistance from vested interests, so an educational campaign to get over the initial hump of resistance would be necessary, but pay off in the long term.

Another way to help such innovation would be to channel investment capital to environmental entrepreneurs. The number of crowdfunding platforms continues to grow, and many of them are moving towards being able to provide contributors tangible benefits, whether it’s tradeable crypto-currency tokens, shares of company, or rewards such as free or discounted products and services. Why not make such an investment drive the centerpiece of an Earth Day campaign?

The desire for profit and to consume are not the enemies of sustainability, they are the engines of innovation, if they are allowed to operate in a relatively free market. Though misanthropic notions that compare human beings to a cancer on the earth have infected the environmental movement, and many environmental non-profits have come to see coercive power of government as the primary savior of the earth, these views are short-sighted, and will not get us out of our current environmental/humanitarian predicament. Because of this, the cause of environmental sustainability needs libertarians and others who believe in the transformative power of free markets now more than ever. If we aren’t able to innovate our way towards a greener future, eco-warriors and their political allies will continue to heap regulations on society until innovation can barely move at a snail’s pace. For this Earth Day and future ones, let’s seek out and promote campaigns that eschew moralizing in favour of encouraging innovation. And if we can’t find any, let’s start our own.