climate change growth

Growth and the endless war on carbon

New-Climate-Economy-Report-CoverLast week I wrote about the New Climate Economy report and its confidence in the compatibility of economic growth and a safe climate. I suggested that politicians and the media were hearing what they wanted to hear without actually reading the report, because it doesn’t actually promise to halt climate change. But there’s another thing that goes unnoticed when you try to fight climate change while growing the economy – you commit yourself to an endless war on carbon.

That’s because until they are disconnected from each other, more growth means more carbon. If the economy is growing, then it is constantly clawing back any progress on cutting emissions. The proposed solution is decoupling growth and emissions through carbon productivity – making more money for each tonne of emissions. But you have to pursue efficiency faster than the economy is growing, otherwise you’re just running on the spot. This is the difference between relative decoupling and absolute decoupling, a crucial distinction that is glaringly absent from the New Climate Economy paper.

Fighting climate change while growing the economy is to be content to constantly take two steps forward and one step back – and bear in mind that we’re currently taking one step forward and two back, since absolute emissions are still growing.

Not only that, but you have to keep doing it indefinitely. Ongoing growth without destabilising the climate requires a constant industrial revolution, a permanent war footing, because every year you have to take more carbon out of the economy to compensate for the growth.

The New Climate Economy admits as much. Their study runs up to 2030, and they suggest that the carbon productivity of the global economy needs to improve by around 3-4% a year, every year to 2030. But there’s no transition, no ‘arrival’ at a safe place by 2030. Quite the opposite:

In 2030–2050, the improvement in carbon productivity would need to accelerate again, to around 6–7% per year, to stay on track.”

Or later in the same report:

“The low-carbon transition will not end in 2030. Much deeper reductions will be required in later years, to take global emissions down to less than 20 Gt CO2e by 2050 and near zero or below in the second half of the century.”

McKinsey’s Carbon Productivity Challenge, which also argues for growth, has the same problems. They argue that the carbon productivity of the economy has to increase tenfold between now and 2050. This would be an epic transformation of the economy “comparable in magnitude to the labour productivity of the Industrial Revolution”, but carried out in a third of the time. But since they don’t expect growth the stop in 2050, even a monumental achievement like that wouldn’t be the end of the transition.

Neither report mentions the future beyond 2050, perhaps because the further ahead you think –2080, 2100 – the more absurd the maths becomes. Since the pro-growth reports don’t run with it, here’s Tim Jackson:

“Beyond 2050, of course, if growth is to continue, so must efficiency improvements. With growth at 2% a year from 2050 to the end of the century, the economy in 2100 is 40 times the size of today’s economy. And to all intents and purposes, nothing less than complete decarbonisation of every single dollar will do to achieve carbon targets.”

And that’s at 450 ppm of CO2. If we take 400 or 350 ppm as the safe point, “by 2100 we will need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The carbon intensity of each dollar of economic output will have to be less than zero.” At this point, once we require efficiency rates of 100% or greater, we’re off into the world of perpetual motion machines and alchemy.

This is why the transition to a post-growth economy is so important to the transition beyond carbon. With a post-growth economy, we can genuinely transition – there is a safe place to aim for on the other side. That is not true of the mainstream vision of growth. With endless economic growth comes an endless war against carbon emissions, and ultimately a war with the laws of physics.


  1. Excellent Jeremy. Man’s ultimate futile aim to rule/own the world. I’ve just come across the philosophy of The Zeitgeist Movement – could go well with a post-growth economy, I think.

  2. Are you sure the maths is right? 2% compound growth for 100 years would give an economy only 7.39 times as big. From now to 2100 is 86 years; 2% compounded gives an economy 5.58 times as big, not 40 times! Either I’m missing something or your data source is wrong.
    Theoretically, there are sufficient renewable energy sources to completely recarbonise our energy supplies and even to grow it. However, as our economy is already consuming a couple of planet’s worth of (non energy) stuff, the conclusion is still dreadful.

    1. Depends on where you start. If we assume 4% growth requirement from now to 2050, we arrive at a 2.62 times our current economy by that time. So the new base is 4.62. For the next 50 years we assume 2% growth, and I arrive at a factor of 7.19 times the current size. Not anywhere near 40 either, but still devastating considering that we already overshoot resource repletion every year and that many resources simply cannot be repleted easily. We do arrive at a factor of 40, however, if we assume an average growth of 4.44 for the next 85 years. Based upon past rates of the last 30+ years, that isn’t a far fetched assumption, with 2009 being the big exception:

      1. Yes, it depends on your starting assumptions. This quote is from Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, and I’ve skipped his starting points as it would be a post in itself. To cut a long story short, he has faster growth rates for developing countries, lower ones for richer countries. He assumes that, long term, we’re aiming for a fairer global society. So by 2100 we’re working to a population of 9 billion, all enjoying a European lifestyle as a minimum and expecting 2% growth every year.

  3. You could just have well cited PwC’s new report “2 degrees of separation” –

    “PwC’s climate change analysts estimate global economies need to cut their energy related carbon emissions for every $ of GDP by 6.2% every year from now to 2100. That’s more than five times the rate currently achieved.

    Current total annual energy-related emissions are just over 30 GtCO2 and rising, on the back of GDP growth of 3.1%. In the same period, carbon intensity was reduced by only 1.2%, a fraction of what was needed. As a result the global challenge going forward is tougher than before – averaging 6.2% every year, to 2100.”

    1. Yes, I had that exact quote in my first draft, and then cut it to keep it short! Another report describing with careful numbers how to achieve something that is ultimately impossible.

      I was going to post the main graphic from ‘2 degrees of separation’ as a separate post instead.

      1. Jeremy, I appreciate your explanations and understand why you were unable to provide the detail in a short(ish) blog post.
        I am not at the point of despair yet, as to me there are things which may yet enable humanity to save itself and its civilisations:
        1. Stop the population growing and eventually reduce it. Absolutely essential as our huge & growing population drives resource depletion and climate change. But a number of poor countries HAVE put in place female / sexual education, made contraceptives available and reduced growth. So this can be done, especially if aid programmes focus on it.
        2. Move from neo-liberal economics with a focus on growth and with GDP as its data point to economics based around well-being for all, greater equality and some sort of well being index as the data point. Not impossible but requires a global cultural shift. Some of us are here already; we must focus of changing the position of key influencers and decision makers. You have started; others must follow.
        3. From this follows lower resource / energy consumption / head in the developed world. Not impossible if people can get to value friendship and free time over possessions.
        4. The energy sector can be largely decarbonised, heating/cooling of buildings can use much less energy but I don’t see how intensive agriculture (essential to feed the huge population) could manage without diesel and agrochemicals.
        So in my view we must focus on population and on cultural shift…with good data to back up our assertions.
        Many thanks,

          1. Jeremy,
            I’d appreciate a natter sometime (I live between Manchester and Leeds) about how we (the community of people who think like you and I do) can somehow get through more effectively to mainstream influencers and decision makers. Also, how to break out of our niche and get our thinking mainstreamed with ordinary people. Plenty of people are trying but so far we havn’t made the breakthrough…..
            Let me know a couple of times when I could call you. My phone is 07769 936887 and my e-mail is

  4. Well, the IPCC’s models for the future suggest that higher growth will result in lower carbon emssions overall than low growth. It costs money to develop and deploy lower carbon technologies so we need growth to afford them.

    Linear extrapolations like this have odd outcomes. However you can’t just model your side in a linear fashion and not do so on the credit side. Since the cost of renewables and other low carbon energy sources is falling we should model those too in a linear way. Which would mean they would reach a zero cost, and then be so cheap that we coould extract carbon from the atmosphere – so by 2100 we could be taking carbon out of the atmosphere.

    1. The IPCC’s emissions scenarios are more nuanced than that. Economic growth isn’t modeled independently, so it’s impossible to tease it out as the crucial factor. Nor is there a low or postgrowth scenario under consideration – since growth is non negotiable even for the IPCC, you can only choose between ‘rapid’ and ‘intermediate’ growth. The need for growth is a starting assumption for almost every set of models you’ll come across. The question isn’t being asked – yet.

      Interestingly, PwC modeled a ‘constrained growth’ scenario in their 2006 report on reconciling carbon emissions and growth. As you’d expect, it showed considerably lower emissions than business as usual. They cautioned against any policy objective based on that idea, and dropped the constrained growth scenario from the 2008 update and any work since. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

      I take your point that without growth, it’s hard to afford low carbon technologies. But that’s mainly true in poor and medium income countries, where I’m all in favour of further development. That’s not such a problem in rich countries like the UK. Renewable energy doesn’t need ‘new’ money that we can only acquire through economic growth. The vast sums we spend on fossil fuels, diverted into renewable energy, would be enough to fund the transition even in a low or no growth situation.

      1. Well, since renewables are still a lot more expensive that fossil fuels transition now would mean we have to spend more or have less power. Your maths is off.

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