Letter to Planet Earth

Tax fossil fuels and make market forces save us, writes Guy Singh-Watson in a powerful Letter to Planet Earth ahead of COP26 as a call for citizens, businesses and governments to act on the only solution left to us.

Our campaign to fight climate catastrophe must focus on one thing above all others – possibly even to the exclusion of all others. We must push to make fossil fuels much more expensive and leave markets and businesses to drive the change to a more sustainable global economy.

I have reached this conclusion reluctantly, after 30 years of campaigning for more enlightened business practices. My belief that businesses can harness humanity’s deeper motivations and work collectively for the common good culminated in Riverford becoming employee owned in 2018.

I still long to live in a world which is not dominated by greed, mediated through markets; I hope others will follow our lead, choose more imaginative ownership structures, and work to benefit people and the planet as much as for profit. But the urgency of the climate crisis means that we must fight it in the world as we find it now. A world where greed and selfishness are deeply embedded in our institutions, culture, and governance.

I have spent my working life trying to demonstrate that farming and business can be both sustainable and fair, but progress is painfully, heart-wrenchingly slow. The fundamental, world-shaping truth is that businesses exist to extract profits for their shareholders. That is more or less enshrined in law, and no amount of Corporate Social Responsibility window-dressing is going to change it.

Despite spending my life railing against unregulated neo-liberal capitalism, I cannot dispute its extraordinary power to drive innovation and funnel resources towards solutions, as long as those solutions are profitable. It offers us the only realistic hope of addressing climate change in the time available.

Fossil fuels currently cause 89 per cent of global warming. Reducing their use as quickly and effectively as possible is all that matters in the urgent fight to prevent climate catastrophe. Only one thing will mobilise the action needed to achieve that: making fossil fuels much more expensive. That can be done either simply and directly, through taxation on their sale – or, with much more complexity, through a carbon tax.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimate that the appropriate taxation of fossil fuels, at rates rising to the equivalent of $75 per tCO2e (tonnes of CO2 equivalent), would reduce global carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030. This is probably not enough to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming, but it is much better than any other proposal.

Given that this is the view of the IMF and the OECD, and given that virtually all leading economists have called for fast and substantial taxing of fossil fuels or carbon, it is very hard to understand why the world is moving so painfully slowly from subsidising fossil fuels to taxing them.

Where fossil fuels are currently taxed, the global average stands at under £2 per tCO2e – at a time when carbon is trading at over £30 per tCO2e, and rising rapidly. I would argue for even higher rates of taxation than the IMF and OECD suggest. My personal experience at Riverford (when deciding whether to plant trees, electrify vehicles, compost flammable waste, and so on) has been that around £50 to £100 per tCO2e is the level at which many green investments, previously justified by ethics or marketing, suddenly become driven by hard-nosed economics, and likely to be adopted at scale.

My argument and plea is that all campaigning forces should unite behind this one urgent call to tax fossil fuels. Although campaigns around plastic, food waste, methane emissions from livestock, food miles, and so on are all very important, I am concerned that they are diverting attention from the one action that may yet avert disaster.

Campaigns which focus on individual people’s behaviours (mediated through markets) also risk encouraging the disturbingly prevalent myth that informed citizens making good buying choices can drive businesses to find the solutions we need. Nothing other than government-imposed taxation will bring about the necessary scale and speed of change.

I am staggered that any thinking person could suggest that the purchasing choices of conscientious individuals will be anything more than peripheral in solving our environmental problems; we are surrounded by the evidence of this. I have an uncomfortable feeling that an excessive belief in the power of consumers to drive change is being used as an excuse for systemic inaction.  

Don’t let the noble actions of a committed minority of individuals and businesses be a fig leaf to cover our government’s inadequacy. We desperately need them to provide a framework that financially incentivises a drastic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels by the less committed.

Of course, fossil fuel interests will lobby furiously against this – and history tells us that our governments are pathetically susceptible to their influence. There will be cries that taxing fossil fuels is regressive, that it will impact the poor unfairly, that energy-intensive industries will be driven to less regulated countries.

So we must be prepared to respond, with plans to use the funds raised by the tax to support emerging green technology, and critically, to support those worst affected by the transition. This is thoughtfully addressed in the IMF report; read it online here. A large body of leading (mostly US-based) economists argue for a ‘fee and dividend’ policy, under which the entirety of the funds raised by a carbon tax would be distributed in a universal payment to ensure that the least wealthy 70 per cent of people are actually better off.

Business can be part of the solution to the climate crisis; indeed, it can be the biggest part. But only if we are honest about the purpose of business, and provide a clear, firm, and ethically justified taxation framework whereby the polluter pays. However obvious and well supported by mainstream economists this conclusion is, our governments will only resist the interests of the fossil fuel industry under unified, focused, and relentless pressure from the electorate for one single goal: make fossil fuels expensive.

P.S. Those who know me may be surprised by my line of argument. I have not previously been an advocate of market-based solutions to complex environmental and social problems. My core values remain unchanged, but a number of factors have led me to believe that we face a specific and urgent challenge which can only be addressed, in the time available, by working with the world as we find it; namely through market forces and the clear signal of taxation. This is what has changed my mind:

– Capitalism is brilliant at solving simple, clearly defined problems efficiently and fast, but very poor at addressing complexity. Few problems could be simpler than the need to burn less fossil fuel, or have a more straightforward market mechanism for achieving it than taxation. 

– Riverford is not a repeatable example of how businesses can carve a path to sustainability in the absence of government action. We are unique and privileged in so many ways: we are employee owned, largely free of debt, and not beholden to impatient investors. Many of our customers have the financial freedom to make choices denied to some – and even more importantly, they are extraordinarily interested, educated, and supportive of our ethical choices. All these factors have enabled us to follow a path not open to most businesses.

– I have been very impressed by the pace of decarbonisation of the National Grid, using well-engineered contracts and competition to drive down the cost of renewable energy and grid balancing. The companies providing these solutions are typically concerned only by returns on capital, but have done more to address climate change than any values-driven business or individual.

– Reluctantly, we must acknowledge how resistant to making real lifestyle sacrifices even many relatively thoughtful people can be. Despite being disappointed by their inaction as individuals, I am confident that the same people would be happy to collectively support much stronger government action on climate change. People are far more likely to support and adhere to a system that all are obliged to follow, than to adopt these actions independently while those around them carry on as usual.

– The already inadequate pressure from individual people’s patterns of investment and consumption is further dissipated by misleading greenwash, making it almost impossible for concerned citizens and investors to make informed choices even when they do have sufficient willpower.

– Likewise, values-driven investment will have little impact. I suggest reading Robert Armstrong’s commentary in the Financial Times on the words of Tariq Fancy (once a fan, now a critic of the power of sustainable investment). Or listen to similar arguments on BBC Radio here.

– The argument for ‘fee and dividend’ can be read here. And here is the impressive list of economists who support it (the largest collection of economists in history to make a single statement): historyismade.org.

None of this should detract from the importance of, and the intrinsic rewards reaped from, good citizens making good decisions and living good lives. There are also occasions when committed individuals can be important in supporting unproven or radical green initiatives before they are picked up and supported by the market. We must, however, deny our politicians and corporate PR the crass fantasy that any individual’s actions can come close to solving the climate problem.


Leave a Reply

  1. By means of consolation and also to correct the Global Warming annex Climate Change report purpose. After living almost 5 years in Devon, I’ve noticed how deeply imprinted the Britons are with the belief that Climate Change is upon is, and that it’s due to our footprint, and outbreath of Co2, that this is caused.
    What I’m going to say isn’t meant to be taken as the truth, it’s the result of my research on this subject. Which started with following the work of Rosa Koire.
    This was around the end of the 90’s. I also read the UN report Agenda 21.
    Here’s Rosa Koire explaining the construct of this Agenda.
    Behind the Green Mask:

    A few years later, I met a member of the Hague city council, who told me that when he was invited to attend a presentation of Agenda 21, with the purpose to present this to the town councils all through the Netherlands, he and the other attendants received specific instructions about what terms they should use, to create an impression that Agenda 21 was for the benefit of the environment, and for the wellbeing of the population, with emphasis on praising every citizen’s effort and dedication to support, and implement the protocols.

    That aspect in the presentation is suspicious, for such an approach, to me, reeks of mind-programming. Creating a consensus reality that implies ingredients of fear for losing our natural habitat, and comforts of living, merged with hope to DO GOOD by making efforts to be saviours of what’s at risk of being lost.

    That’s an abuse of human sentiments, as I perceive it. Again, after a few more years, I found Eric Karlstrom’s work, based on broad spectrum research, and verification of facts. His findings are factual, in the sense that certain members of the think tank related to the publication of Agenda 21, and the Climate Change report, both designed by the UN, are also playing other roles, that are contrary to their role within the UN.

    I’ve now presented quite an amount of information, possibly causing you to turn away from it, either in disbelief, or in anger for having received and read this comment of mine. Know that it’s not my intention to spoil your efforts to be a good steward of the land, and all that lives on it. For that’s my work as well.
    When it’s welcome, here’s Eric Karlstrom’s website:
    In whatever way you’ve received this comment, my appreciation for reading it until the end stands no matter what. Thank you. Devon.

    1. Devon,

      I read your comment to the end and become more perplexed by the end than at the beginning. Are you trying to offer a balanced view, because a denialist view does not offer balance.
      Let me throw a quote your way from the Karlstrom website:

      ‘…The new green left (environmentalist) propaganda reminds me of the old red left (communist) propaganda. The dirty word is now carbon rather than capitalism. The game is simply to intrude and control everything. How much will the carbon tax be for each of us to breathe?

      Professor emeritus of aerospace engineering, Vincent U. Muirhead, University of Kansas…’

      One can read various books and journals ( e.g. Fred Magdoff/Ian Angus/Clive Hamilton/John Bellamy Foster/The Salvage Collective) mostly all from the ‘green left’ or more interestingly named as ‘ecosocialists’ .Most would deny the quote offered above. It is worth acknowledging the early history of Communism, or Marxism to be more honestly named, is definitely not the later Leninism or Stalinism that was totalitarian .and resulted with McCarthyism in the 1950s of the USA – ‘Red under the Bed’ – solely another response in favour of perceived and hoped for US world domination which continues up to the present day.. With reference to the quote , how more hegemonic can it be in attempting to achieve what it critiques??

      Ecosocialists, to generalise, seek community action(rather than community development – upon which Agenda 21 was formulated ) not to sustain , but to regenerate, Humans are well beyond sustaining considering how much has been already lost and even more so if things go above 2C…and ecosocialists are about all sentient beings not mired in petty nationalisms like building walls or turning back migrants, or, controversially, the pressuring of university professors to resign which I would perceive to be a form of Fascism. Let me be clear – a message needs to be heard even if I don’t agree with it.

      Maybe your post has a hidden message and that is to do with the definition of the state of Freedom – freedom to do and freedom not to do – a state belonging to ethics and morality and not perceived entitlement/self interest commonly manifest by capitalists as profit above all else….M->C->M’.

    2. Hello astralstroll. First of all a straightforward clarification, regarding your 7-miles boots’ jump to your conclusion: “… a denialist view does not offer balance”. It’s hilarious to my Dutch nature, to notice such choice of words: “balanced view.”

      That sounds like using the skill to say something in such a way that in the end nothing is said. Sounds like the wordy style of speaking and writing in Britain’s legislation system and politics, doesn’t it?

      Likely you’ve had an excellent training, in that skill, when I read your comment. Never throw the applecart, isn’t it? Gosh, the terrible virus of politeness forced through British throats.

      Here’s my view:
      Climate change is of all times and happens in our entire solar system, with icecaps appearing or significant changes in the red eye of Jupiter, and the nature of our Solar cycles.

      As I perceive it, humanity is chosen to bear the brunt on its shoulders, of what’s caused by a, until this day, unstoppable greed of cartels ruling the world of industry, development of agriculture, space, using Earths resources below the surface.

      Mining in Africa’s increasingly poisoned soil, due to the use of chemicals, causing poverty in the population, where fathers don’t earn an honest income.

      Also the felling of huge areas6 in our rainforests, the lungs of our planet.
      And chemtrailing our skies, plus the construction of 5G celltowers, combined with the introduction of LED-lamps, needed to transfer 5g to serve the installation of huge networks, reaching as far as the grid around our planet where satellites are positioned in large numbers lately.
      Check out what happens in America, where Agenda 21 is in an active mode. Farmers are forced to give up their land. Right now, Dutch farmers must obey to a standard in order to lower Co2 production, in such drastic measures, that
      many will go bankrupt.

      Tractor protests followed, in The Hague, the government had to adjust the decision. Blunder after blunder shows up in our governnment, and when a huge one showed up, last year November, the parliament fell. Despite an election in January 2021, the culprits keep their positions.
      The world is upside down, much isn’t what it seems, and polarisation is thriving in the Netherlands.
      All that I’ve mentioned so far is part of a particular manual, turned yellow with age. The manual of shock doctrine.
      The title of Naomi Klein’s book. Check out her presentation of that book on You Tube, with old film material of examples, one of them in South America, the dictatorship of Pinochet in Chili.
      The breakdown of present societies, worldwide is in its effect the follow up of WW2. A stealth war. Silent weapons for quiet wars, see?

  2. I’m not sure what to make of points here – though believe in planetary problems.
    I am very concerned about electricity hikes, on a personal level, and getting cold or broke or both.

    1. A profit first approach to basic utilities that doesn’t care adequately for people in fuel poverty or look after the planet is no longer fit for purpose – time for change indeed.

  3. I quite agree Guy. Having spent most of my life shouting about organics/climate change/our banks and pensions investing in weapons etc….. nothing happens quickly …. More than 30 years ago we ran an organic nursery, tried not to use plastic, tried giving up fossil fuel vehicles……we just got laughed at….
    We still need to make the changes personally – where we spend every penny – does really count… (I wish the general public understood that – but they just see shopping as a hobby….!) but without decisive widespread action by most of the world’s governments – we are doomed to reap what we have been sowing, sad but true! I do not think they will – despite having children/grandchildren they seem to think that the ‘money’ they are so keen on collecting will inure them to the effects of climate change…..we will all learn the hard way….

    1. Spot on – what we buy and how we spend our money really does create the world around us. The hidden costs of our spending choices are now apparent in the disparity between the impacts of climate change here and in the global south. Let’s hope that the climate justice movement and focus that COP26 has given is the start of real and positive change.

  4. Yes, it’s great reading your impassioned letter and to hear some of your knowledge with regards to making solutions. I am a customer of Riverford so I love the whole foundation of what they stand for, and I would prefer to burn less fossil fuel and to become carbon neutral. However as an individual and I’m sure I can speak for millions, who do we see, what do we do? We are all tied in to a commitment to working to buy ironically our homes and the land it occupies, and although a lot of comfort will have to be compromised for sure to become self sufficient, how do we begin to even address this issue, when we are all tied into paying mortgages and other fossil burning related bills, living like we do and working for companies that also operate under these detrimental conditions?

  5. Jennyh
    Well done Guy, straight to the crux of the argument. We all haveour fingers crossed that this happens, I can’t see any other way of getting our money mad society to act. After all ‘you can’t eat money’

  6. Thanks Guy.. Can’t claim to understand all what you said and wrote, but I hope others will and put into practice what is needed. In my simplistic way I find it baffling to consider people are so uncaring for our planetary home that they wouldn’t want to care for it and recognise the damage being done and try to remedy it and not rush headlong to catastrophe. Surely people in power would at least be motivated by looking into the face of a small child and caring for the world that will be theirs! Perhaps not.

  7. I do agree with the logic of Guy’s position, more tax on fossil fuels. However, people, particularly richer people, will react and find ways around the tax. Without rigorous enforcement it could just be a way to increase inequality. There is no substitute for governmental support, and that implies voter support. I wonder how far that would get in our democracy? We need a wholesale, and persistent, switch to support for fossil fuel tax from the media to get this going.


In case you missed it

Receive the Digital Digest

Food, Farming, Fairness, every Friday.

Learn more

About us

Find out more about Wicked Leeks and our publisher, organic veg box company Riverford.

Learn more