To get climate change under control, our growth fetish must go

Economic growth is a significant contributor to the climate change crisis. www.shutterstock.com

The recent US-China climate announcement is a significant development in humanity’s equivocal response to the climate crisis. Despite over four decades of political engagement with climate change, tangible action has remained limited to rhetorical flourishes by politicians against a background of greater fossil fuel exploitation. So the announcement by the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters that they will commit to reducing emissions is welcome news.

Yet the targets themselves are not sufficient to meet the politically agreed two-degree warming limit. The announcement, coming just days before the start of the G20 talks in Brisbane, highlights a fundamental contradiction at the heart of climate negotiations. This is the tension between commitments to avert climate catastrophe and those to increase global economic growth.

In the lead-up to the G20 talks, there has been little doubt about Australia’s agenda. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have been adamant in their emphasis on the need for greater global economic growth. It is rare, if not impossible, to find anyone in the mainstream public debate who questions the wisdom of ever-increasing economic growth.

Yet there is a major underlying problem in our collective worship and addiction to growth – climate change. Economic growth, rising affluence and a growing world population are the major contributors to the current environmental crisis. Despite four decades of political discussion about the urgency of climate change, rising emission levels have only paused during periods of economic recession.

Compound economic growth is at the heart of our environmental impact. Climate change, ocean acidification, species extinctions, the depletion of the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, all these impacts can no longer be ignored.

Yet politicians and economists unanimously promote economic growth as the ultimate measure of success. In this age of economic rationalism, merely to question the benefits of increasing gross domestic product (GDP) is tantamount to treason.

There have been challenges to this growth fetishism. In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome emphasised the problems underlying ever-increasing economic growth. Despite these arguments being rejected by mainstream economists and conservative commentators, those early 1970s predictions are holding up very well.

Alternatives to increasing economic growth

Under a vision of a “steady-state economy”, the economy does not exceed its ecological limits with stable levels of population, consumption and GDP. The economy fits within the limits of Earth’s ecosystems with a more equitable distribution of wealth.

This would involve significant economic change and the “degrowth” of already wealthy nations. It is also likely to be politically unpalatable.

Steady-state economists maintain that capitalist markets are the most efficient way to allocate resources. Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in their rejection of growth and belief in the maintenance of capitalism, a system that by definition relies upon growth.

For many proponents of climate action, any challenge to economic growth is steadfastly rejected. The recent New Climate Economy study has been cited as evidence that responding to climate change need not upset the economic growth model.

Economist Paul Krugman argues the report shows that “strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth”.

However, critics argue that little consideration is being given to the amount and speed of reductions required to avoid dangerous climate change.

Climate scientists such as Kevin Anderson demonstrate that industrialised nations need to reduce their emissions by 8-10% per year immediately. This is to limit global warming to the politically agreed maximum of two degrees Celsius this century. Such cuts have never been achieved and are not compatible with economic growth. “Degrowth” would need to occur at a level greater than was seen during the collapse of the former Eastern Bloc economies in the early 1990s.

To keep within the two-degree limit, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests the global economy needs to reduce its carbon intensity by 6.2% per year until 2100. This is five times faster than the current rate.

It is all a long way from the pumped-up optimism and economic delusions evident at the G20 talks. As Fredric Jameson argues, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”.

Unfortunately, the next decade is likely to present us with some very unpalatable truths about the conflict between a habitable environment and our addiction to growth.

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