The lim­its to green growth

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In re­cent years, the push to build a “green econ­omy” that can de­liver the world from con­tin­ual en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic cri­sis and usher in a new era of sus­tain­able growth has been gath­er­ing force. But the push has been a source of un­ex­pected con­tro­versy, with many pre­dict­ing lit­tle more than busi­ness as usual with a coat of green paint. Will rec­on­cil­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic im­per­a­tives be harder than we think?

In a word, yes. The main­stream per­cep­tion is that the green econ­omy will en­able us to break free from our de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing growth. Many ar­gue that the shift to a green econ­omy can even spur new growth. But, as ap­peal­ing as this idea is, it is not re­al­is­tic, as we show in our new book In­side the Green Econ­omy.

To be sure, it is pos­si­ble for a gen­uinely “green” econ­omy to be pros­per­ous. But the model that pre­vails to­day fo­cuses on quick and easy so­lu­tions. More­over, it re­asserts the pri­macy of eco­nomics, thereby fail­ing to recog­nise the depth of the trans­for­ma­tion that is re­quired.

In­stead of re­think­ing our economies with a view to adapt­ing their func­tion­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal lim­its and im­per­a­tives, to­day’s green econ­omy seeks to re­de­fine na­ture, in or­der to adapt it to ex­ist­ing eco­nomic sys­tems. We now at­tach a mon­e­tary value to na­ture and add it to our bal­ance sheets, with the protection of “nat­u­ral cap­i­tal,” such as ecosys­tem ser­vices, off­set­ting en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, gauged by the global ab­stract cur­rency of car­bon met­rics. New mar­ket-based mech­a­nisms, such as the trad­ing of bio­di­ver­sity cred­its, ex­em­plify this ap­proach. None of this pre­vents the de­struc­tion of na­ture; it sim­ply re­or­gan­ises that de­struc­tion along mar­ket lines.

As a re­sult of this nar­row ap­proach, cur­rent con­cep­tions of the green econ­omy have so many blind spots that the en­tire en­ter­prise should be re­garded as largely a mat­ter of faith. The most pow­er­ful tal­is­man is tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, which jus­ti­fies sim­ply wait­ing for a cure-all in­ven­tion to come along. But, though new ideas and in­no­va­tions are ob­vi­ously vi­tal to ad­dress com­plex chal­lenges, en­vi­ron­men­tal or oth­er­wise, they are nei­ther au­to­matic nor in­evitable.

In­no­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion, is al­ways shaped by its pro­tag­o­nists’ in­ter­ests and ac­tiv­i­ties, so it must be judged in its so­cial, cul­tural, and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­text. If the rel­e­vant ac­tors are not work­ing to cham­pion trans­for­ma­tive tech­nolo­gies, the re­sults of in­no­va­tion can re­in­force the sta­tus quo, of­ten by ex­tend­ing the life of prod­ucts and sys­tems that are not fit to ad­dress so­ci­ety’s needs.

Con­sider the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. Though it pro­duces in­creas­ingly fu­el­ef­fi­cient en­gines, it puts them in larger, more pow­er­ful, and heav­ier ve­hi­cles than ever be­fore, eat­ing up ef­fi­ciency gains through the so-called “re­bound ef­fect.” And it faces the temp­ta­tion to spend more en­ergy learn­ing to ma­nip­u­late emis­sions read­ings, as Volk­swa­gen did, than on de­vel­op­ing gen­uinely “green” ve­hi­cles.

Bio­fu­els are not the an­swer, ei­ther. In fact, the use of biomass wreaks eco­log­i­cal and so­cial havoc in de­vel­op­ing economies, while de facto ex­tend­ing the life­time of an ob­so­lete com­bus­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Clearly, the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try can­not be blindly trusted to spear­head the rad­i­cal re­or­gan­i­sa­tion, away from pri­vate ve­hi­cles, that is needed in the trans­port sec­tor. And that is ex­actly the point. If we are to de­cou­ple eco­nomic growth from en­ergy con­sump­tion and achieve real re­source ef­fi­ciency in a world of nine bil­lion, much less en­sure jus­tice for all, we can­not let the econ­omy lead the way.

In­stead, we must view the green trans­for­ma­tion as a po­lit­i­cal task. Only a po­lit­i­cal ap­proach can man­age, through gen­uinely rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions, dif­fer­ences of opin­ion and in­ter­est, guided by the kind of open de­bate, en­gag­ing civil so­ci­ety, that is vi­tal to a plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy.

Of course, not all coun­tries are plu­ral­is­tic democ­ra­cies. In many that aren’t (and even in some that claim to be), those who campaign for a more so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally, and eco­log­i­cally eq­ui­table world face se­vere re­pres­sion. If they are to ful­fill their in­dis­pens­able role in driv­ing for­ward the trans­for­ma­tion that is needed, demo­cratic coun­tries must put respect for ba­sic hu­man rights, such as free­dom of speech and peace­ful as­sem­bly, at the top of their for­eign­pol­icy agen­das. These ba­sic rights are the nor­ma­tive foun­da­tion upon which trans­for­ma­tive strate­gies will have to be ne­go­ti­ated.

Af­ter all, the big­gest ob­sta­cle to the so­cioe­co­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that the world needs is not, in the end, tech­no­log­i­cal; much of what is re­quired, from or­ganic farm­ing to net­worked mo­bil­ity sys­tems that don’t rely on pri­vate ve­hi­cles, is al­ready within reach. The real prob­lem is the lack of po­lit­i­cal will to im­ple­ment and scale up those in­no­va­tions op­posed by vested eco­nomic in­ter­ests. The chal­lenge is thus to over­come these mi­nor­ity in­ter­ests and en­sure the protection of the broader pub­lic good – a task that is of­ten left to civil so­ci­ety.

Some might ar­gue that call­ing for rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, rather than in­cre­men­tal change, is in­ap­pro­pri­ate. At a time when the world faces so many press­ing chal­lenges, from eco­nomic stag­na­tion to po­lit­i­cal up­heaval to mas­sive refugee flows, any progress to­ward sus­tain­abil­ity should be viewed as a vic­tory. Prag­matic, po­lit­i­cally fea­si­ble so­lu­tions to the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis should be cel­e­brated, not crit­i­cised.

But this view im­plic­itly un­der­es­ti­mates the se­ri­ous­ness of the en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis that the world faces, and as­sumes lin­ear change when the needed trans­for­ma­tion will be non-lin­ear. While some fea­tures of the green econ­omy – re­source con­ser­va­tion, the tran­si­tion to re­new­able en­er­gies, spe­cific tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions, and ef­fec­tive eco­nomic in­cen­tives, such as taxes – are un­de­ni­ably im­por­tant, they do not add up to the large-scale change needed to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of present and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

The task that the world’s democ­ra­cies face to­day is to con­tinue the project of moder­nity, em­brac­ing the lat­est knowl­edge about plan­e­tary bound­aries, while ad­vanc­ing broad demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion and re­duc­ing poverty and so­cial in­jus­tice. This is no small un­der­tak­ing, and re­quires pas­sion and tenac­ity. But it is not be­yond our ca­pac­ity. The first step is to rec­og­nize the con­straints that the “green econ­omy” places on thought and ac­tion.

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