As pretty much everyone in the world knows by now, Pope Francis published an encyclical recently On Care for Our Common Home, which discusses all things environmental – climate change, of course, but also air pollution, water pollution, sustainable development, the precautionary principle . . . the list goes on through 184-pages.
Unfortunately, while the encyclical might discuss a lot of environmental issues, it doesn’t offer much in the way of factual support. I’m going to focus in on one particular question raised by the Pope: Is capitalism fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection? The Pope certainly seems to think so. As he writes (@190):
Here too, it should always be kept in mind that environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces . . . Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.
There are two flaws here. First, the Pope is arguing against a straw man by implying that the alternative to his vision is a world without environmental regulation, “where profits alone count.” Every country in the world has environmental regulations in place, especially the advanced western market economies. Second, it is precisely in the countries where markets are relatively free, and where private enterprise is allowed to pursue profits, that we have seen the greatest gains in environmental quality over the past half century. The best examples of this are two decidedly capitalist countries, Canada and the United States.
On almost all measures, Canadians currently experience significantly better air quality than at any other time since continuous monitoring of air quality began in the 1970s. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, for instance, have decreased sharply in the vast majority of locations in Canada over the past 30 years. The decrease is especially apparent in our major urban centres. Concentrations of carbon monoxide, a potent toxic emission, have decreased everywhere in Canada, and since the mid-1990s there have been no exceedances of the strictest provincial air quality objective at any of the 156 monitoring locations across the country.
Concentrations of two of the air pollutants of greatest concern – ground-level ozone and ultrafine particulate matter – have generally decreased across Canada since 2000. Air quality in Canada has improved and is improving.
And it’s not simply air quality that has improved. As previous reports have documented, water quality in Canada is generally quite good, and forests are no longer harvested beyond levels that are considered environmentally protective. More and more waste water is subject to high levels of treatment before being released to the environment, more solid waste is being diverted to recycling, soil quality has improved, and the size of protected areas has increased over recent decades.
The United States has seen similar (if not greater) improvements in environmental protection. A 2005 report published by the U.S. Department of State summarized 30 years of environmental progress thus: “During this time, the U.S. economy grew by 187 per cent, population grew by 39 per cent, and energy consumption increased by 47 per cent, yet air pollution decreased by 48 per cent. In 2002, 94 per cent of Americans were served by community water systems that met all health-based standards, up from 79 per cent of the population in 1993.” And improvements continue. As of 2013, according to the EPA, ambient concentrations of carbon monoxide decreased by 84 per cent of their 1980 levels; ozone had fallen by 33 per cent; ambient lead by 92 per cent, and sulfur dioxide by 81 per cent over the same time span.
While Canada and the U.S. still face environmental challenges, their histories of development under democratic capitalism are ones of broad-based environmental improvement coinciding with increasing income and wealth. It may not have occurred to the Pope that these two things can happen together, but had he checked the numbers he would have seen that his assumptions to the contrary are simply wrong.
In fact, if he really wants the people of the Earth to breathe clean air, drink clean water, protect critical ecosystems, and protect endangered species he could have given them much better advice, including advocating for ever-greater levels of democracy and economic freedom.
Kenneth P. Green is Senior Director, Natural Resource Studies at The Fraser Institute.