Our planet in cri­sis: the next great de­bate

Is it pos­si­ble to curb global warm­ing while ad­vanc­ing eco­nomic growth? A shift to a low-car­bon, ser­vice-led econ­omy could off­set the ef­fects of a ris­ing world pop­u­la­tion and in­creas­ing con­sumer pro­duc­tion,

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Paul Hockenos re­ports

he aus­pi­cious con­clu­sion of the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change last year – signed by 195 coun­tries com­mit­ted to check­ing global warm­ing be­low 2°C – educed sighs of re­lief and good vibes around the world. But just half a year later, the bon­homie has van­ished com­pletely: US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to with­draw Amer­ica from the pact makes Paris’s two-de­gree tar­get al­most cer­tainly unattain­able.

This body blow has hardly been soft­ened by the dire new re­ports about the Arc­tic po­lar ice cap, now con­sid­ered be­yond sav­ing – a fa­tal­ity of rapidly warm­ing cur­rents of the Arc­tic Ocean. The ice cap has been dubbed Earth’s “nat­u­ral air con­di­tioner” for the way it re­flects sun­light that would oth­er­wise warm wa­ters all the way to the In­dian Ocean and trig­ger ex­treme weather around the globe. A decade ago, the spec­tac­u­lar loss of Arc­tic ice due to global warm­ing – the re­gion’s tem­per­a­tures are at a 40,000-year high – sent tremors through the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, which un­der­scored how the thaw will wreak havoc, rais­ing sea lev­els by as much as 20 feet and melt­ing per­mafrost that con­tains high lev­els of methane, a po­tent green­house gas.

But a widely cir­cu­lated re­port pre­pared for the in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Arc­tic Council by 90 in­ter­na­tional ex­perts posts a yet gloomier fore­cast. The ice caps are now melt­ing faster than ever, and it’s likely that the sum­mer ice so crit­i­cal to the world’s ecosys­tem will dis­ap­pear com­pletely by the late 2030s. The bill for the de­struc­tion in its wake will soar into tens of tril­lions of eu­ros, claims the re­port; the cost in terms of hu­man suf­fer­ing and loss of bio­di­ver­sity in­cal­cu­la­ble – and there’s no tech­no­log­i­cal rem­edy in sight, no Plan B.

The stark news will amp up the de­bate about how to re­shape our econ­omy in ways that will curb and mit­i­gate cli­mate change, and fo­cus at­ten­tion on the min­i­mal aims of the Paris Ac­cord, which some ob­servers claim isn’t nearly enough, fast enough – the melt­ing ice caps just one piece of ev­i­dence.

Crit­i­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists such as Jonathan Daw­son, an econ­o­mist at Schu­macher Col­lege, an en­vi­ron­ment-fo­cused in­sti­tu­tion in South West Eng­land, ar­gue that global warm­ing can’t be stopped as long as the de­vel­oped world’s na­tions in­sist upon eco­nomic growth, namely the ever-in­creas­ing pro­duc­tion of goods and ser­vices. “At Paris and dur­ing all of the ne­go­ti­a­tions, the one non-ne­go­tiable on the ta­ble the whole time was eco­nomic growth,” ex­plains Daw­son.

Most of the ex­perts in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, says Daw­son, were aware that the sa­cred cow of growth would even­tu­ally have to be sac­ri­ficed to keep the Paris tar­gets in range.

“Many of us thought that by em­brac­ing the Paris Ac­cord, the process would in time snow­ball,” says Daw­son, re­fer­ring to more rig­or­ous mea­sures in the fu­ture. “There’s al­most no ev­i­dence that we can re­duce emis­sions while there’s eco­nomic growth and the cur­rent high con­sump­tion lev­els of the in­dus­tri­alised world. But the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive out there is still that tech­nol­ogy will en­able us to live as we al­ways have.”

A pro­found dif­fer­ence be­tween the dis­course to­day and even just a decade ago is not just the in­ter­na­tional con­sen­sus on the threat of global warm­ing, but there’s also broad con­cur­rence that our ex­ist­ing neo-lib­eral eco­nomic mod­els and en­ergy us­age are in­com­pat­i­ble with mankind’s long-term wel­fare. In other words, we can’t hope to keep cli­mate change at bay as long as our tra­di­tional, in­dus­trial economies them­selves – modus vivendi for two cen­turies – aren’t trans­formed. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ist-de­signed mod­els for “green growth” (also known as “sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment”) are now the foun­da­tion of a world­wide dis­course shared by the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, and, in prin­ci­ple at least, all of the sig­na­to­ries of the Paris Agree­ment.

Cen­tral to green growth is that en­ergy gen­er­ated by the sun, wind, wa­ter and or­ganic solids can now start to re­place fos­sil fu­els. The tech­nol­ogy of re­new­able en­er­gies is al­ready here – so­lar pan­els, wind tur­bines, elec­tric cars, smart grids – and prices are plung­ing so steadily that clean en­ergy is cheaper than oil and gas in many places.

Coun­tries such as Ger­many and Den­mark, where re­new­ables are in­te­gral to en­ergy gen­er­a­tion, il­lus­trate that a shift to a low-car­bon econ­omy is doable with­out harm­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. More­over, our economies can de­car­bonise even faster by shift­ing from in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion to a ser­vice econ­omy, a trend which is al­ready un­der way.

This trans­for­ma­tion, say its ad­vo­cates, will be greatly ac­cel­er­ated by en­ergy ef­fi­ciency mea­sures, as well as the smarter use of other re­sources, which will shrink the quan­tity of en­ergy needed in the first place, mak­ing the en­ergy sup­ply eas­ier to cover with re­new­ables.

More­over, the green growth-ers be­lieve firmly that ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy – be it in hy­dro­gen power, car­bon cap­ture, biotech­nol­ogy, geo­engi­neer­ing, or other op­tions – will smooth the way, even in the con­text of a grow­ing world pop­u­la­tion.

A bonus of the green growth par­a­digms is that they prom­ise more growth, which im­plies that the wealthy de­vel­oped world won’t have to sur­ren­der its way of life for cli­mate pro­tec­tion. Since a dou­bling of the world’s pop­u­la­tion makes growth in­evitable any­way, they say, the trick is to fo­cus on how it will grow. The cre­ation of re­new­able-en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture will ac­tu­ally pro­mote growth by cre­at­ing mil­lions of jobs in con­struc­tion, the chem­i­cal industry, the dig­i­tal sec­tor and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

They ar­gue it’s a win-win deal. As Kofi An­nan put it while UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral: “It is of­ten said that pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment would con­strain or even un­der­mine eco­nomic growth. In fact, the op­po­site is true. Un­less we pro­tect re­sources and Earth’s nat­u­ral cap­i­tal, we shall not be able to sus­tain eco­nomic growth.”

But pro­po­nents of “no growth” and “de­growth” eco­nom­ics, such as Daw­son and oth­ers, claim that the world is de­lud­ing it­self with green-growth fairy­tales that prom­ise ever more ex­pan­sion, mi­nus the fos­sil fu­els and ex­or­bi­tant waste. While growth-crit­i­cal eco­nomic mod­els had cir­cu­lated among en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists since the 1970s, they reap­peared brightly on the radar in the af­ter­math of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, when even many main­stream so­cial sci­en­tists, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists and politi­cians started to re­think the sta­tus quo. Since then, grass­roots de­growth cam­paigns have cropped up, their num­bers modest but grow­ing, par­tic­u­larly with younger ac­tivists.

At the heart of no-growth think­ing, says Niko Paech, a Ger­man econ­o­mist and in­tel­lec­tual, is the con­vic­tion that “in­creases in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct [GDP], even so-called green growth, means in­creas­ing green­house gases”. Paech says that to meet the 2°C goal, hu­mans have to bring their own av­er­age car­bon foot­print down to 2.5 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide a year. Be­cause of the poor de­vel­op­ing world’s low con­sump­tion, most of its in­hab­i­tants are be­low this fig­ure al­ready.

“The prob­lem is af­flu­ent coun­tries,” says Paech. Stud­ies show, for ex­am­ple, that Ger­mans emit an av­er­age 11 tonnes of car­bon diox­ide a year per per­son; in the United States the fig­ure is 20 tonnes. “But politi­cians don’t dare tell their au­di­ence that they have to change their stan­dard of liv­ing. We’ve got to start talk­ing about our con­sump­tion, about eat­ing meat, about driv­ing cars and fly­ing,” says Paech.

Growth crit­ics recog­nise that chang­ing be­haviour and ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially about con­sump­tion, is a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge. In Europe, Green Party politi­cians seek­ing to re­duce meat con­sump­tion have been roundly crit­i­cised for au­thor­i­tar­ian, “so­cial­ist” be­haviour – for lim­it­ing per­sonal lib­erty.

But An­dré Re­ichel, a pro­fes­sor at Karl­shochschule In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity, Ger­many, and an econ­o­mist at the fore­front of the de­growth move­ment, says that the im­pe­tus for change must ul­ti­mately come from be­low.

“There are fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that we have to pose about our civil­i­sa­tion’s nar­ra­tive,” he says, point­ing out that ev­ery so­ci­ety en­shrines its val­ues in its le­gal and tax codes. “Car­bon-in­ten­sive ac­tiv­i­ties and prod­ucts have to be taxed in or­der to shift con­sump­tion pat­terns. We have to change the story, sep­a­rat­ing our­selves from the dom­i­nant growth nar­ra­tive and em­brac­ing one based on dif­fer­ent kinds of well-be­ing and hap­pi­ness.”

Re­ichel and oth­ers point to an ar­ray of stud­ies that show hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing aren’t in fact tied to eco­nomic growth. “We have to ques­tion the per­ceived ben­e­fits of growth it­self, as it’s ob­vi­ously ter­ri­bly un­healthy and not just con­cern­ing cli­mate change,” says Daw­son. “The world’s most con­sumerist so­ci­eties have very high lev­els of obe­sity, de­pres­sion, drug ad­dic­tion and sui­cide. There’s co­pi­ous re­search track­ing qual­ity of life that shows that a shorter work­ing week, more time with the fam­ily, less work con­trib­utes to well-be­ing.”

An­dreas Krae­mer of the IASS In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Sus­tain­abil­ity Stud­ies, Pots­dam, Ger­many, coun­ters that the green growth con­sen­sus is a cru­cial foun­da­tion to work from, even if it’s not a sil­ver bullet. Re­new­able en­ergy ex­pan­sion, he says, “if ac­cel­er­ated through a rapid abo­li­tion of all sub­si­dies for fos­sil and nu­clear en­ergy, and dereg­u­la­tion to avoid un­nec­es­sary ad­min­is­tra­tive hur­dles for in­vest­ment in re­new­ables, would con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to halt­ing global warm­ing.”

The de­bate over growth aside, he says that trans­form­ing en­ergy sup­ply, mo­bil­ity and global food chains are key to keep­ing be­low the 2°C tar­get.

“De­car­bon­i­sa­tion has to be seen as a big op­por­tu­nity,” says Dim­itri Zenghe­lis of the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, a de­fender of green growth. “The move to low-car­bon so­ci­eties, in ad­di­tion to ad­dress­ing global warm­ing, will spur in­no­va­tion and en­trepreneur­ship, re­duce pol­lu­tion and con­ges­tion in cities, and im­prove health. There’s a lot of self-in­ter­est here for many par­ties. This is how rev­o­lu­tions get started.”

Europe should lead the way, says Re­ichel. “It was Europe that in­tro­duced the in­dus­trial, growth-fix­ated econ­omy to the world in the first place. So now it could be seen as Europe’s chal­lenge to change it, to come up with an­other model and story that drives and mo­ti­vates us like mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism once did.”

Paul Hockenos is the au­thor of the forth­com­ing Berlin Call­ing: A Story of An­ar­chy, Mu­sic, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

USGS / NASA Land­sat data / Or­bital Hori­zon / Gallo Images

In 2002, the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarc­tica, above in 2000, col­lapsed. Sci­en­tists warn global warm­ing and melt­ing ice caps will cause more ex­treme weather.

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