One of the regular objections to those who say that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth is that it is a political or ideological stance. We somehow want things to be simpler and greener and are only too happy to sacrifice a capitalist system that we disapprove of anyway.
This is a convenient but entirely unfounded accusation. It’s a matter of maths. Calculate the levels and rate of decarbonisation required to stabilise the climate, and there is simply no way it can be achieved in an economy that is growing.
I’ve written about these calculations before. They’re in Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, in nef’s report Growth Isn’t Possible, and (albeit inadvertently) McKinsey’s Carbon Productivity Challenge. Here’s another from Post Carbon Pathways.
In a paper that explores the Environmental Kuznets Curve, the rebound effect and decoupling, Samuel Alexander explains just what would need to happen to deliver sustainability if the global economy continues to grow.
Throughout the last century, developed countries grew at an average of 3% a year. Growing at this rate, their economies doubled in size every 23 years. If this exponential growth continues, then by 2080 the developed world’s economies will be 8 times larger than they are today.
If we continue with the prevailing development model, then we should expect developing countries to have ‘caught up’ by 2080 too. That means all ten billion people on the planet will be enjoying a developed world lifestyle. In which case, says Alexander, “the global economy would be around 80 times larger, in terms of GDP, than the size of the developed world’s aggregate economy today.”
Stop and look around at the state of the world after providing a consumerist lifestyle to just one billion people. We’re already pushing at the limits of what the atmosphere, the nitrogen cycle and the earth’s biodiversity can handle – can we really crank up economic activity by a factor of 80?
Of course, the idea is that efficiency runs ahead of growth so that we meet climate targets without having to decrease GDP – except that no country has ever achieved absolute decoupling of carbon emissions and GDP growth. As Jackson calculates, growth to 2050 would need to be accompanied by carbon efficiency gains of 11% a year – and the best anyone has ever done is 0.7%.
The maths is not on the side of growth. And yet, the enduring myth even among many environmentalists is that GDP growth can continue alongside decarbonisation. This, as Alexander says, “is not a scientifically credible position.”