Is Green Capitalism a Myth?

A recent book argues that market-based solutions are incapable of spurring adequate responses to the climate crisis.




11. AUGUST 2022



Thousands of pages of scientific evidence illuminate the urgency and peril of the climate crisis and outline responses to address it, while public calls for action across the political spectrum, among scientists, climate activists, and public officials are louder than ever. Yet nature is being destroyed on an unprecedented scale, and the chance of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees is diminishing.

A new book has embarked on finding the answer to this apparent paradox. In ‘The Value of a Whale – On the illusions of green capitalism” director of research at Common Wealth, Adrienne Buller, argues that the current set of market-based answers to the climate crisis – from carbon prices to green growth and the commodification of nature – is subject to fatal biases that prevent us from instating truly meaningful solutions to the problems at hand. According to Buller, many of the solutions proposed by green capitalism provoke a ‘maladaptation’ to the crisis. While they may be designed to adapt to or even mitigate climate change, they are at risk of simultaneously creating adverse outcomes, further risks, exposures, and inequalities. As a prominent example of this, she names carbon offsetting, with offsetting sites literally burning up across the globe.

Departing from market-based solutions however is challenging, given that our society is built around capitalist relations and asset management firms and other large corporations by now have outsized the power of governments and international institutions. But what should a solution beyond market-based proposals and worth pursuing entail? According to Buller, any adequate solution should both have a material impact (e.g., lowering the emissions released into the atmosphere) and contribute to a redistribution of wealth, power, and consumption across the global economy, especially given that affluent consumption is one of the main drivers of ecological devastation.

“While technological progress has, to date, produced some reductions in material throughput and waste, these gains have been entirely negated by rising consumption”, which often “demands ‘cheap’ and invisible land, resources and labour. […] In this sense, the ‘freedom’ implied by consumption and choice within markets ultimately rests on the profound unfreedom of countless others, kept just out of sight”.

As an example of the limited effectiveness of market-based solutions Buller names the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), which has been criticized for its limited scope and arbitrary price levels, and to date hardly has contributed to an overall reduction of emissions across the region. Moreover, the role of states too often has been downgraded to de-risking and safeguarding private sector profits, rather than investing directly in crisis-fighting solutions, Buller writes. Other renowned economists, such as Mariana Mazzucato, have long been calling attention to the importance of ‘moonshot’ projects driven forward by an entrepreneurial state.

„Green capitalist solutions seek to transfer the complex, ethically and socially fraught, and inherently political questions presented by ecological crisis from democratically contestable terrain to the private authority of markets […].“

This way, existing inequalities are not only exacerbated, but anti-democratic ‘elite’ climate policies also evoke strong resentments across wide parts of the population, for which the gilets jaunes in France are a good example. According to Buller, all of the above taken together ultimately means that green capitalist solutions are self-defeating and should urgently be replaced by new policies.

For those interested in a more conciliatory angle on the green growth versus no growth and capitalism versus no capitalism debate, we recommend our upcoming Symposium on August 30, which, among other things, will outline new approaches beyond the old fundamental questions and assess what could serve as a bridge between the camps.

More information here.




During the high point of market orthodoxy, economists argued that the most 'efficient' way to combat climate change was to simply let markets determine the price of carbon emissions. Today, there is a growing consensus that prices need to be regulated and that a carbon price on its own might not be enough.