Does climate change mean the end of economic growth?

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Does climate change mean the end of economic growth? How is value even measured and what does the term ‘economic throughput’ mean? Do we need to de-growth or a steady state economy? Do we need system change and to replace capitalism in order to prevent cataclysmic climate change? All these questions are discussed in this…


I think all the camps (Green-growth, Steady State, De-growth, Agrowth (growth agnostic)) agree on a lot. For example, that the Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity (Planetary boundaries - Stockholm Resilience Centre) (and see 'Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries’), GDP is a flawed measure of well-being used on its own, and that green technologies and public services need to be expanded everywhere.

As I understand it, the crux of their differences is to do with decoupling, i.e can economic growth and development continue while negative impacts on the environment, including climate change, be reduced – or while the natural environment continues to provide ecosystem services.

There is relative decoupling which means environmental pressure still grows, but less so than the gross domestic product (GDP).

Absolute decoupling is a situation where an absolute reduction in resource use or emissions occurs, while the economy grows.

Greengrowthers claim that we can continue growth in GDP, while reducing negative impacts on the environment, through improvements in throughput efficiency. Degrowthers believe that decoupling is not possible, or at least not possible to the degree needed to bring us to net-zero in time.

To put it into more context, according to the IPCC we only have till 2030, i.e seven years, a very tight schedule in order to halve global GHG emissions (given the latest science, it’s looking unlikely now that even this will be enough to prevent a 1.5C or even 2C rise - but lets put that to one side). The question is: can we achieve this target while continuing GDP growth, do we need to intentionally reduce GDP in global north economies, or should we just be agnostic about GDP. And secondly, while the urgency is to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions, what about the other planetary boundaries which we have dangerously exceeded and need to bring back to safe levels, e.g. use of natural resources, biodiversity loss, other environmental pressures. What are those safe levels, when do we need to bring them down by and can they be decoupled?

I haven’t studied the topic in any depth and would like to learn more, but that’s my understanding of what the key questions are in the debate. If anyone wants to confirm, correct me or improve what I have said, please go ahead.

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In my mind, some of the most compelling arguments against the degrowth position are articulated in the article The Limits to Degrowth by Rickard Warlenius:

The main arguments in short:

  1. The pessimistic assumptions on the possibility of decoupling are not backed up with credible evidence, only unsubstantiated assumptions.
  2. Applying the negative assumptions on decoupling articulated by the degrowth camp to the necessary pollution reductions according to IPCC implies a required GDP reduction of 90% over the next 30 years in some rich countries (the US and some European countries). Anyone claiming this outcome is more likely or easier to achieve than alternative outcomes with a higher degree of decoupling and lower GDP reductions is not convincing.
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I think Jason made a good overview of the issue though I would add nuance here and there.

Greengrowthers are a wide variety of actors even when you are looking at the most influential actors and they don’t have one position. For example green growth is the official policy of a lot of developed countries for possibly a decade now. But Robert Pollin is also a green growther and his positions and policy proposals do not, or only marginally, track with the policies implemented by the greengrowther countries.

Degrowthers don’t believe that decoupling is impossible, they know absolute decoupling is not only possible but has been achieved by a number of countries. But they also know that the achieved decoupling (of CO2 in this case) is nowhere close to where it needs to be to keep us out of disaster. Additionally they insist on the fairness principle, where the decoupling in rich countries needs to be fast enough so they don’t burn through their carbon budget and then also burn through the carbon budget of poor countries, which, to be frank is fully what is intended by the rich countries.

In the context of the fairness principle we in the rich countries do not have seven years to get to net zero. We are going to blow our carbon budget in the next year or two. I did calculations (in 2021) for Slovenia and how our green growth policies will succeed in fighting climate change. Calculations show that we will blow our 1.5C budget by september 2026 if all the environmental plans the goverment committed to will be caried out faithfully They ofcourse didn’t even carry those out in the following 2 years, so the reductions were not achieved so if I were to recalculate I think it likely that we have moved the date of overshooting our carbon budget to late 2025.

Needless to say Slovenia is not one of the most carbon intensive countries so every more carbon intensive country will blow through its carbon budget even faster.

This is relevant when considering the objections Anders posted. The argument he linked to is indeed crucial and if true would show that degrowthers are wrong. And it is true that if greengrowth policies could achieve much higher rates of decoupling it would make it easiest to achieve net zero as there would need to be fewer economic and societal changes implemented. There are a couple of reasons why this greengrowther narrative isn’t convincing to me.

One. It only looks at CO2 emissions. But as Jason pointed out we are overshooting 6 out of 9 planetary boundaries and to me it looks like the plan of greengrowthers hinges on solving the co2 overshoot by further trashing the others. This does not seem sensible to me if achieving ecological sustainability is your goal.

Two. The greengrowther policy has been in place for some time now and has achieved some though wildly insufficient impact. The insufficient policies wasted so much time that the rich countries have basically already used up their entire fair carbon budget for staying under 1.5C temperature rise, not even taking into account that climate scientists are discovering that we have much less leeway than was previously thought. I am now largely of the opinion that theorizing about how much decoupling greengrowth policies “could” do is basically just another time waster in service of the status quo.

Three. The article that Anders share is basically a claim, going something like that:sure greengrowth policies have been insufficient, but if we applied them harder they could speed up and work out in the end. This then poses a political question. So since we are at the point of failure, why werent they applied hard enoug? I think the problem is political, the greengrowth policies have already been coopted by the system and are basically meaningless at best and toxic at worst in the public eyes. Everyone I know from ecological circles just rolls their eyes now when they hear anyone mention green growth because that has been the government mantra for a decade now and we can all see the lack of effects.

So if green growth is now toxic to the circles who are most likely to be willing to fight for pro environmental policies why not instead just fight for specific policies? That would avoid the cynicism wouldn’t it and environmentally conscious people would be willing to fight for it. Yes, it would and people are doing that, ala Insulate Britain or Dovolj za vse here in Slovenia.

But wait, all the policies these groups are fighting for are also advocated by degrowthers, so what is going on? Where is the rub?

/will return to this later when I have time

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Very good points and something worth considering to all people working with advancing post-capitalist ideas and implementing them in various ways.

Sorry to hear if some people identifying strongly with degrowth-ideas feel the podcast episode as somehow potentially damaging. I’ve for example never liked the term “degrowth” and see it as very misleading even in simple terms of organizing, but others obviously find it useful and inspiring even. Different groups and points of view will try and find ways to work what best fits them, the physical fact is the overconsumption of natural resources and resulting carbn emissions by the rich both globally and nationally must be limited from what it is now.

I’m of the opinion that quick revolutions aren’t possible nor desirable and just plain “low hanging fruits” of advancing social democratic ideas both in the global north and south with stricter green investment guidelines globally already seem to be hard to achieve for progressive movements. If our movements can get those underway, it provides more possibilities for the kind of wide-ranging changes towards a more democratic economy that for example I support.

Thank you Anders also for sharing that article, extremely useful material to take into consideration both the realities of current situation and possibilities in the coming decades. Warlenius seems to have an interesting book in Swedish about capitalism and growth, hope he publishes in English (or Finnish!) at some point.