Are Nike, Starbucks and Walmart our best hope against climate change?

Dan Box
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer... well, enemies who are making some pretty bold pledges, at any rate

One favourite trick of the greens and the left is to beat up on governments for giving trade subsidies to big business. It’s an easy hit, and everybody likes to get one in.

Greenpeace recently railed against new Canadian legislation that would 'effectively subsidise nuclear operators'; George Monbiot has described such payments to British airlines as 'unwarranted, outrageous, disgraceful'; and the Ecologist has a proud history of turning up our nose at these 'outrageous subsidies'.

Subsidies take many forms – tax breaks, incentive payments, limits on how much companies will pay if anything goes wrong – but the argument is usually the same: that governments are hypocrites for preaching the gospel of the free market, when trade subsidies that favour one industry over another help ensure the market is anything but free.

But I can sense a wind of change. If you care about sorting out global warming, you might have to accept that unfair trade subsidies are your new best friends. Here’s a few examples from the past few weeks:

  • Britain needs to upgrade its power distribution network to a ‘smart grid’ to have a chance of hitting our carbon emission reduction targets. A report on how to build this from the Parliamentary Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change is littered with talk of 'strategic investment' and 'incentives' to convince companies to do the heavy lifting involved.
  • Mitsubishi is to spend £100m on offshore wind turbine research in Britain, creating a few hundred jobs and kick-starting a renewable energy industry with bags of potential – but only after Westminster saw fit to throw £30m of Government grants the company’s way.
  • Clipper Windpower is building a factory in north-east England to make blades for the ‘Britannia Project’, a prototype offshore wind turbine that will be among the biggest in the world – but only after the Government chucked it £4.5m last year.
  • Engineering giant Siemens signalled a massive vote of confidence in UK tidal power by investing millions in Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines – after the Government quango The Carbon Trust gave MCT a £2.7m grant earlier this month.

The list goes on, via the Government’s boiler scrappage scheme, home insulation grants and new plans to save you £5000 if you buy an electric car. None of these things constitute free trade: all of them are straightforward market-distorting subsidies. But the reality is that it’s a deeply unfair, unbalanced market out there – and so we may well need more of the same.

Thank you Nike, Starbucks and Walmart

I’ve been reading the Book of Revelations trying to make sense of some strange new portents, but have had no luck yet (frankly, it’s completely bonkers). All I can say with certainty is that the world is turning – can it really be the case that our best hopes now lie with Nike and Starbucks?

These corporate giants have just launched a massive, coast-to-coast campaign to drum up support for new US climate change legislation, which is floundering.

Stranger still, Walmart - the world’s biggest retailer and joint top of the list of companies environmentalists love to hate, along with … erm, Nike and Starbucks – has announced it will cut 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions from its operations. OK, it looks like it will be Walmart’s suppliers, not the store itself that makes the cuts, but 20m is still a lot (equivalent to taking 3.8m cars off the road for a year, the company claims).

It’s unlikely to just be some new PR campaign – after all, fewer Americans believe global warming is happening today than did two years ago – so could this unholy trinity be doing it because they believe it? What the hell is going on?

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