There are a few things that I hope I’m wrong about. Chief among them is climate change. It would be great if the sceptics turn out to be right and we have nothing to worry about after all. The gloating would be insufferable, but it would be a small price to pay for averting global catastrophe.
I’d also like to be wrong about economic growth. Emissions and economic growth have tracked quite closely in the past, with rising economic activity generally requiring more energy and materials. Thus growth has driven climate change. The only significant periods of decarbonisation anywhere in the world have come during recession.
The prevailing theory is that we can overcome this by decoupling emissions from economic activity. We can do this with renewable energy, efficiency, sustainable transport, and the materials recovery and zero waste practices of the circular economy. I’m on board with all of those things, and there is a growing number of countries posting falling emissions in tandem with a growing economy. Britain did it last year, and the World Resources Institute recently compiled this list:
This is good news, but we should be careful not to hail this as proof that growth and sustainability can co-exist after all. Towards the end of the article, Nate Aden points out that a “key factor in many countries is a structural shift of the economy away from emissions-intensive industry.” 9 out of 10 of them have seen industry decline as a percentage of the economy in that time.
So while these countries do show absolute cuts in emissions within their own borders, a lot of those emissions haven’t been eliminated. They have been displaced, outsourced to somebody else. Globally the emissions remain, and national strategies may not add up to a global solution.
But then we may be decoupling globally too. The IEA points out that emissions have more or less flatlined in the last couple of years, while the global economy has continued to grow:
So perhaps we are at a turning point, where global emissions peak and begin to decline, whatever the economy does. I certainly hope so.
As always, there are two main concerns. The first is timing. Sustainable growth is theoretically possible, but it would take a transformation on a par with the industrial revolution. Can that be done in time to prevent runaway climate disruption? Secondly, it’s possible to forecast sustainable growth to 2030 or 2050, but infinitely into the future is a different matter. Eventually, as the IPCC has warned, you would get to the point where you would need a carbon negative economy – one where you are actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere in order to permit further growth.
Even the reports that keep getting cited as evidence that we can grow and decarbonise often hedge their bets. The New Climate Economy is top of that reference pile, and it says this: