Global Vision: The free market is the best tool for protecting the natural world

This article was first published on Global Vision.

Today, Friday 5 June, is the UN’s World Environment Day 2020. This year’s theme is ‘time for nature’, with governments around the world encouraged to take action to safeguard the natural world. To that end, the EU has announced an array of new environmental measures. The bloc is aiming to ramp up the proportion of European land and oceans which enjoy official protected status. Its promises are estimated to cost around €20bn (£18bn) per year. Those measures come alongside the new ‘European Green Deal’, an almighty trillion-euro plan to bring carbon emissions tumbling down.

It is clear from these announcements that the Common Agricultural Policy is on the way out, which in itself is a very welcome development. During the EU referendum and at the height of the Brexit drama, one of the top items on Leavers’ lists of priorities was the need for the UK to quit the Common Agricultural Policy. It is costly, directly counter-productive to its goal of protecting the natural world and an economic disaster for everyone but a small handful of farmers.

The European Green Deal, though, is hardly an improvement. It sounds suspiciously similar to the Green New Deals peddled by the likes of Rebecca Long-Bailey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These eco-socialist policies boil down to the same myopic principle: that the best way to tackle environmental issues is through copious government spending and crippling new regulation.

Even if the EU did theoretically have enough authoritarian power to force those within its borders to do its bidding, the European Green Deal offers no tools for it to use to that effect. Under this much-touted new package of legislation, European authorities will not have much at their disposal to sway the loyalties of the myriad disaffected parties besides a hard stare and a stern telling-off.

The cost of the plan has also been the subject of much heated discussion already. In short, absolutely nobody actually believes that the EU’s grandiose and sweeping targets can be met with a mere one trillion euros. Europhilic economists at the Bruegel think tank estimate that the true price tag of the European Green Deal will be around triple that, and even then it is unlikely to achieve everything it sets out to do.

And what about all those other pertinent environmental issues, besides carbon emissions? If you were to believe the rhetoric coming out of Brussels, great strides forward are being made in reducing the use of chemical pesticides, planting billions of new trees and protecting carbon-rich habitats like forests, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands.

In reality, the new plan will either state the EU’s intentions to do those things, and go no further – in which case precisely nothing is achieved – or engage in clumsy, heavy-handed, ill-considered regulation of the kind the EU specialises in, which will take out the legs from under entire industries and make any growth or innovation impossible for a generation.

This kind of centralisation of environmental policy has never worked, anywhere, and there is no reason to think that things will be any different in Brussels, where the central administration has even less power over the affairs of individual member states than national governments. It relies on the EU being able to compel both member states’ governments and private industry to radically change the way they operate, at enormous cost to citizens’ quality of life and companies’ profits respectively.

Approaching policy in this way either results in no change, or short-sighted, one-dimensional results being achieved through far-reaching interventionist government at immeasurable long-term cost. The free market is by far the best tool for protecting the natural world, despite it seemingly being a public good, and it is time legislators looked away from their rolls of red tape and their wads of taxpayer cash long enough to recognise that.

If we are to make any real progress in confronting pressing environmental issues, it is imperative that we focus on real, effective solutions, rather than simply lunging at any opportunity to exponentially increase the size and power of the state.

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