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We can achieve sustainability – but not without limiting growth

While the technology exists for zero emissions energy, we won’t achieve full sustainability without limiting growth and consumption. Wind turbine image from www.shutterstock.com

We can achieve sustainability – but not without limiting growth

While the technology exists for zero emissions energy, we won’t achieve full sustainability without limiting growth and consumption. Wind turbine image from www.shutterstock.com

Can Australians be sustainable and enjoy endless economic growth? It’s not likely.

In a recent article on The Conversation, Steve Hatfield-Dodds argued that sustainability was possible in Australia without sacrificing economic growth.

He also argued the necessary policy changes would not require fundamental changes to Australians’ values. This research was based on a detailed paper in Nature and modelling undertaken for CSIRO’s recent National Outlook Report.

Contrary to this pro-growth outlook, I will argue that sustainability would be almost impossible to achieve in practice without ending growth in population and consumption per person.

I’ll also argue that the claim that we don’t need to change our values cannot be proven (or disproven) by the method used by Hatfield-Dodds and colleagues. Recent experience suggests we may need to change our values.

This debate is important, because the argument that sustainability is compatible with growth is likely to be misused by those who have vested interests in endless economic growth.

Growth and sustainability are rarely compatible

The Nature paper upon which Hatfield-Dodds’ article is based offers new, valuable, quantitative insights. Unfortunately the qualitative result, that growth and sustainability are compatible, is only true under very restrictive conditions.

This can be seen from considering the well-known identity for environmental impact I, derived by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren: I = PAT, where P is population, A is “affluence” (which can be measured by GDP per person) and T is technological impact I/GDP. Breaking down impacts into the three factors is useful, because each factor can be addressed with separate policies.

Using this formula we can see that in the special case that technological impact T is zero, environmental impact is zero even if GDP continues to grow.

For example, in the energy sector, if all energy generation came from renewable sources and if all renewable energy technologies could be made with renewable energy, then the environmental impact of CO₂ emissions would be zero.

Although it is now technologically possible to transition to an energy sector based entirely on renewable electricity, with zero CO₂ emissions during operation (see here and here too), continuing GDP growth and energy consumption would still expand industries that are not carbon-free.

Hatfield-Dodds and colleagues do not make the extreme assumption of zero technological impact. However it’s clear from I = PAT that to continue with economic growth and reduce environmental impact, the technological impact T has to decrease faster than growth in PA which is GDP. To my knowledge, the only successful examples are at a local scale for limited periods of time for the energy sector alone, for example the town of Guessen in Austria, as you can see in the video below.

In practice, this is extremely difficult under circumstances where vested interests such as the fossil fuel industry are resisting the necessary transition towards clean technologies in the US, Australia and many other countries.

Hence there is no guarantee that environmental policies that allow continuing growth in the global economy and population will be sufficient, or implemented rapidly enough, to be compatible with ecologically sustainable development.

So while sustainability and growth are theoretically compatible in a special case, combining them does not offer a low-risk future. To be safer, we must cease global growth in both population and economic activity per person, and transition from polluting, resource-intensive technologies to clean ones.

Can value changes be dismissed?

The second claim is that we won’t have to change our values to achieve sustainability. However, the modelling used does not, and cannot, model values directly. Instead the argument appears to be an indirect one based on the unsupported assumption that major extensions to policies, that exist only to a modest degree in a few places around the world, do not require value changes.

To see how unlikely this is, let’s take climate-energy policies as an example. There are very few countries with policies and associated institutions and mechanisms capable of transitioning to a zero carbon energy future: Denmark, Germany, Iceland and Scotland (not yet a country) spring to mind.

But Australia and the UK as a whole are going backwards. A paper by one of Hatfield-Dodds’ co-authors, Heinz Schandl, finds little evidence for significant decoupling of economic growth from biophysical growth in Australia, China and Japan over 1970-2005.

On the basis of the current environmental crisis (which goes beyond climate change), it can be argued that the only way these major policy changes could be accepted by governments and implemented would be by much greater pressure on governments and other power-holders from citizens and consumers than exists at present. This pressure is necessary to obtain effective sustainability policies and their implementation.

It seems unlikely that such a necessary, massive growth in the social movement for ecologically sustainable and socially just development could come about without a substantial change in societal values. So, contrary to the article’s assumption, effective policies and value changes are not alternatives. Instead it is societal value changes that drive effective policies.

What needs to change?

Some of the more difficult value changes, that may be required to attempt to increase environmental protection while economic growth continues, include widespread community support for:

  • a carbon price of A$50 per tonne of CO₂

  • more generally, environmental tax reform that taxes polluting products severely

  • tight mandatory energy efficiency standards for all buildings, appliances and equipment

  • major expenditure on railways

  • greatly increased densification of cities around public transport routes and nodes (to stop loss of habitat for biodiversity from urban sprawl and to reduce transport energy use)

  • plantings over huge areas

  • a ban on nitrogenous fertilisers

  • a shift to low-meat diets (the opposite of the current trend in rapidly developing countries)

  • much greater overseas aid, to assist poor countries to participate in the sustainable development process.

These are all major extensions of policies that exist to limited degree in some places in the world. They require collective action as well as individual, as Hatfield-Dodds acknowledges.

But they are very unlikely to be implemented by governments without a massive change in community values and practices leading to a powerful social change movement.

A really effective response to the climate crisis alone may require very radical policies and institutional changes similar to those used by combatant countries in World War II. Unfortunately governments would not consider, let alone implement, such measures in peace-time without value changes leading to widespread community support.