Decarbonization: Limits to (Green) Growth Revisited

Friday, March 23, 2012

Conceptually, “green growth” implies a decoupling of economic growth from material throughput and conventional energy use. According to Ulrich Hoffman in a report released by United Nations Conference on Trade and Developments, green growth, as a result of enhanced production efficiencies and changes in the materials/resource/energy mix, is not enough to stabilize at 2C warming. Growth and expansion underpin the capitalist model and the externalities have been a topic of debate since the Club of Rome’s discourse Limits to Growth in the 1970s. Now, four decades later Hoffman argues that this growth model - one based on production and consumption, expansion and profit and distortionist measures of wealth (namely economic productivity per GDP) needs to be fundamentally reframed if the world is to stabilize the climate at 2C by 2100. Given global development inequities, production and consumption patterns and a rapidly expanding global population, Hoffman argues that green growth is not a conceptually accurate model from which to pursue the goals of climate change. To put this in perspective if the international community is serious about not exceeding the 2C warming, the remaining emissions load would be equivalent to approximately 25 years if emissions were frozen at current levels (Hansen et al., 2008). In other words, if we froze global production of goods for 25 years at the current rate we would meet our climate goals. How then would expanding populations and consumption patterns be provided for? Dematerialization of the economy would be an option - ensuring reduction of carbon and emissions intensity via green technologies. However this would have to account for the resources and production (and hence emissions) required for new technologies. According to Hoffman, dematerialization does not do enough to address or account for population-economic growth trajectories or the growing development inequities between developed and developing countries. The rise of global population from about 6.9 billion in 2010 to about 9.3 billion by 2050, drives the scale effect of production and consumption. Resource-constraints even for green technologies exist and the growth in emerging markets increases the rate and scale of consumption. Desires to overcome development inequities, suggests a “four-fold increase in output per capita (and even assuming that the rich world grows no more)” increasing the size of the world economy by six times (Sachs, 2009). De-carbonization of the economy will only be achievable if current consumption patterns, methods of production and measures of well-being and lifestyle are also subject to profound change. Innovation and structural changes promoted by ‘green growth’ will not be enough to turn the corner.  A fundamental overhaul of what we value, how we consume and how and what we measure is required. Unless we change what we measure to include health and well-being, examine cultural ways to change the emissions-intensity of lifestyle and consumption patterns, monetize environmental benefits as well as decipher new ways to measure and monitor actions that avoid costly impacts (the additionality of making more sustainable decisions), Hoffman makes the case that we may be fulfilling a capitalist prophecy of a growth or collapse economic model. The question then becomes, are we able to respond accordingly and initiate the type of ‘carbon revolution’ (noted by McKinsey Global Institute) required to meet these challenges within a matter of decades? I would argue this calls upon true human ingenuity, combining the tools, technologies and the collective adaptive social and cultural strategies that have helped us thrive this far. Let’s go! Image credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill