Why Growth Can’t Be Green

14 09 2018

jason hickelBy Dr Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

Green growth first became a buzz phrase in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. In the run-up to the conference, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the U.N. Environment Program all produced reports promoting green growth. Today, it is a core plank of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

But the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.

The team then reran the model to see what would happen if every nation on Earth immediately adopted best practice in efficient resource use (an extremely optimistic assumption). The results improved; resource consumption would hit only 93 billion metric tons by 2050. But that is still a lot more than we’re consuming today. Burning through all those resources could hardly be described as absolute decoupling or green growth.

In 2016, a second team of scientists tested a different premise: one in which the world’s nations all agreed to go above and beyond existing best practice. In their best-case scenario, the researchers assumed a tax that would raise the global price of carbon from $50 to $236 per metric ton and imagined technological innovations that would double the efficiency with which we use resources. The results were almost exactly the same as in Dittrich’s study. Under these conditions, if the global economy kept growing by 3 percent each year, we’d still hit about 95 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050. Bottom line: no absolute decoupling.

Finally, last year the U.N. Environment Program—once one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory—weighed in on the debate. It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per metric ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The result? We hit 132 billion metric tons by 2050. This finding is worse than those of the two previous studies because the researchers accounted for the “rebound effect,” whereby improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs.

Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.

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5 responses

14 09 2018
Chris Harries

Believe it or not Tasmania has boasted world first in decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth. On paper Tasmania’s carbon emissions have plummeted and we’ve reached our 2050 carbon emissions target thirty years ahead of schedule. This is while having a buoyant growing economy.

I’m using this to illustrate how figures can get fudged. It’s all to do with a downturn in forestry during the last 8 years, which has seen a big rise in forest carbon as trees grow back. A temporal phenomenon, but the statistics make us look so good.

On the economic growth vs energy nexus, some countries look as if they have partially decoupled energy growth from economic growth, but in nearly all of these cases manufacturing that was done in country has shifted to China, along with the associated energy demand. The energy does come back in the form of embodied energy but no country measures embodied energy as part of it’s energy consumption inventories.

This is the case for Australia. Significant drop in electricity consumption during the first decade of the millennium, but nearly all of that was due to manufacturing going offshore. Soon we will even be importing Holdens.

15 09 2018
Idiocracy

“Soon we will even be importing Holdens.”

Thats already the case Chris – AU car manufacturing ended in 2017. “Holden” is largely just another “brand” in the world of badge engineering. The current Commodore is a wrong wheel drive Vauxhall hatch made by ze Germans!

I’m somewhat amazed there hasn’t been a massive rise in the rate of bogan suicides – but maybe it goes someway to explaining the “ice epidemic”… ;-P

15 09 2018
Brendon Crook

I’m somewhat amazed there hasn’t been a massive rise in the rate of bogan suicides – but maybe it goes someway to explaining the “ice epidemic”… ;-P

Hahahaha, that’s true.

We used to make aero engines & aircraft in the 1940’s & 50’s.

These days we can’t even make a biscuit tin

14 09 2018
Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café

One thing that will never change is our will to grow. As humans, we are absolutely driven to grow. The very reason why we are here is to grow – but not only materially so, and that is where we need to change our thinking. What has to change is the way that we grow. We need to shift our approach from being outer-growth-oriented to inner-growth-oriented.
http://energyshifts.net/there-are-no-limits-to-growth/

17 09 2018
John Doyle

It really should be that obvious, but like with economics the mind is not adjusting to true reality. It’s like this cartoon heading my recent articles.
We like the convenient lie:

https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/the-facts-of-modern-monetary-theory,11889#comment-4094696622

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