climate change growth

How fast can we decarbonise without breaking the economy?

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of reconciling ongoing economic growth and a safe climate. Here’s another reason. The graph below is taken from PwC’s Pathway to a low carbon economy. They’ve calculated that global carbon intensity needs to accelerate from an average of 0.9% a year to 6.2% a year all the way to 2100 in order to avoid dangerous climate change.


Some people might declare that impossible right now. John Foster would say these kinds of graphs are actually a form of denial.

I have no problem believing that decarbonising at 6.2% a year is possible. But I don’t think it’s possible at the same time as growing the economy.

As Lord Stern says in his famous 2006 report, “paths requiring very rapid emissions cuts are unlikely to be economically viable”. How fast is ‘very rapid’? Not very rapid, as it turns out. There are examples of countries clocking 1% declines in carbon emissions during periods of structural change in energy, such as Britain’s ‘dash for gas’ or France’s push for nuclear power.

“However,” says Stern, “cuts in emissions greater than this have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval, for example, the emissions reduction of 5.2% per year for a decade associated with the economic transition and strong reduction in output in the former Soviet Union. These magnitudes of cuts suggest it is likely to be very challenging to reduce emissions by more than a few percent per year while maintaining strong economic growth.”

Now, with advances in technology since 2006, perhaps we can hope for something a little better than 1%. Maybe, but Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre maintains that despite his searching, “we have found no examples of economists suggesting that prolonged emission-reductions above 3 to 4% p.a. are economically sustainable.”

So we’re at an impasse. To prevent dangerous climate change, we need to cut carbon faster than the economy can handle.

If we insist that growth is non-negotiable, then we simply won’t be able to cut emissions fast enough, and we’ll get dangerous climate change.

You cannot have both endless economic growth and a safe climate. (I suspect that Lord Stern actually knows this, which is why his latest growth-boosting report doesn’t promise what the politicians think it does. But the moment he says it, the politicians stop will stop listening and find someone else to consult.)

There’s more to consider though. Let’s say we go with what the vast majority of politicians and economists want, and keep prioritising economic growth. We then get the 4 degrees of warming that runaway climate change will bring, and here’s the kicker: the chaos that will ensue will ultimately undo our prized economic growth.

So if we choose growth now, we end up with neither a safe climate, nor ongoing economic growth. It’s a false choice. If we allow our obsession with economic growth to lead us into dangerous climate change, we end up with nothing.

If, on the other hand, we let go of the growth imperative, we can still prevent the worst of climate change. And if we manage the contraction and move towards steady state principle, we don’t have to wreck the economy in the process. Nobody’s saying that’s easy, or all worked out. But it may give us a chance.


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