By Nick Langridge
There is overwhelming consensus that the world is in the midst of an ecological crisis: Greenhouse gas concentrations are at a three-million year high (Willeit et al., 2019), species extinctions are occurring 1000 times faster than before the industrial revolution (Hickel, 2020) and at least four of the nine planetary boundaries marking “the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system” have been crossed (Steffen et al., 2015). The implications of the crisis are felt disproportionately by the poor living in the Global South. However, this is where the consensus ends.
Positions on how to tackle the crisis fall into two distinct camps. The first invokes Dobson’s (2007) concept of environmentalism, a “managerial approach to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes in present values or patterns of production and consumption”. An environmentalist approach therefore advocates ‘green growth’; a strategy by which we meet our environmental targets through continued economic expansion fuelled by green investment and technological innovation (Jackson, 2017). The second position is more in line with Dobson’s (2007) ecologism, which accepts the requirement for “radical changes in our relationship with the non-human natural world, and in our mode of social and political life”. Ecologism informs the economics of degrowth, which proposes “a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way” (Hickel, 2020, Ch 1, para 72).
The green growth strategy is reliant on absolute decoupling. This assumes that the pressures economies exert on the environment can and will decline as GDP continues to grow (Haberl et al., 2020). New research by Hausfather (2021), published by the Breakthrough Institute last month, now claims to have found evidence of such decoupling, sparking renewed debate among green growth and degrowth advocates. While yet to go through peer review, the research claims that the absolute decoupling of CO2 emissions from economic growth has occurred in a select number of (largely Global North) countries. Between 2005 and 2019, 32 countries managed to decouple their CO2 emissions, both territorial and consumption, from growth in GDP. Several prominent ecomodernists and green growth advocates have declared these findings to be proof that we can grow our way out of the ecological crisis.
But do such claims stand up to scrutiny? There are five reasons to doubt that they do. First, the emissions counted in the research do not provide the complete picture. While they cover both territorial and consumption-based emissions, those from land use changes, international shipping and aviation are not included. These are not trivial figures and, unlike other sectors, they are continuing to increase: international aviation emissions are up 140% since 1990 (Mattioli, 2020). Second, the research only considers emissions from CO2; other greenhouse gases – methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone – are not included. Emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas with 80 times the warming power of CO2 – began rising in 2007 after a seven-year period of stability. Since 2014, the rate of increase has more than doubled, with emissions from livestock production to satisfy the Global North’s demand for meat being the primary cause (Fletcher and Schaefer, 2019).
Third, the research also does not include the use of material resources more broadly, which are on the rise and still tightly coupled with GDP. In fact, the global economy has been rematerializing since the turn of the century, meaning an increase in the material intensity of the growth of GDP (Parrique et al., 2019). This is not likely to abate in the future. A World Bank report in 2017 showed that powering the global economy through renewables will require massive increases in material extraction – including a 2,700% increase in lithium. This is before any economic growth is taken into account (Hickel, 2020). Dittrich et al. (2012) estimated that global resource extraction would total 180 billion tons by 2050. The sustainable annual limit is 50 billion tons (Bringezu, 2015).
Fourth, and relatedly, the research provides no evidence of absolute decoupling - of CO2 or otherwise – yet occurring at the global level. Given that the ecological crisis is a global problem, and the timescales require a halving of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, with total net zero to be achieved by 2050, this is a major obstacle. Green growth advocates therefore speak of negative-emissions technologies, such as the Bio-energy with Climate Capture and Storage (BECCS) which is present in the majority of IPCC scenarios. Unfortunately, this technology has never been shown to work at scale, and the land requirements total an area two to three times the size of India, the ecological implications of which would be devastating and fall disproportionately on the Global South (Hickel, 2020).
Fifth, the research has also been subject to several methodological critiques, the main one being the use of regression analysis rather than actual emissions figures, painting an overly optimistic impression. While both methods come with their own issues, this demonstrates the importance of waiting for peer review before making any sweeping assertions.
To conclude, any decoupling of emissions from GDP is a welcome and necessary development in the fight against climate breakdown. However, the above arguments strongly suggest that absolute decoupling at the global level, and from environmental pressures more broadly, is not occurring and is unlikely to happen within the timescales available (Parrique et al., 2019; Haberl et al., 2020). Continuing to pursue environmental and development strategies based around aggregate economic expansion is therefore extremely risky. It not only makes it harder - if not impossible - to meet out environmental targets but every day of delay condemns the poor to further periods of unnecessary hardship and suffering. Development strategies should instead focus growth where it is needed – in places where it can help people to satisfy their needs – and adopt degrowth strategies in the rich North, where, in any case, further growth contributes little to increases in wellbeing (Kubiszewski et al., 2013; Jackson, 2017)
Nick Langridge is a PhD researcher at the University of Bath. He is studying the role of Universal Basic Income in the transition to an ecologically sustainable, post-growth society.
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