Reviews | Do we need to shrink the economy to stop climate change?


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If there is a dominant paradigm for how politicians and economists today think about solving the problem of climate change, it is called green growth. According to the green growth orthodoxy – whose adherents populate European governments, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank and the White House – the global economy can both continue to grow and defuse the threat. of global warming thanks to a rapid and rapid market. led environmental action and technological innovation.

But in recent years, a rival paradigm has gained ground: degrowth. From the point of view of declines, humanity simply does not have the capacity to phase out fossil fuels. and meet the ever-increasing demand from wealthy economies. At this late hour, the consumption itself must be reduced.

Degrowth is still a relatively marginal trend in climate policy, but it is attracting converts. In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists signed an open letter calling for a “shift from GDP growth” to “preserving ecosystems and improving human well-being.” And in May, an article published in the journal Nature argued that degrowth “should be considered and debated as broadly and fully as are the technological pathways of comparable risk.”

Here is an overview of the debate.

Perhaps the most prominent supporter of the degrowth movement is Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and author of “Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World”. Degrowth, as he defines it, “is a planned reduction in the use of energy and resources designed to rebalance the economy with the living world in a way that reduces inequalities and improves human well-being.” .

His argument against the green growth framework is based on two key premises:

  • There is no historical evidence that GDP can be completely decoupled from the use of material resources. In other words, human economies cannot grow endlessly on a planet with limited resources.

  • GDP can be decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energies, but this decoupling is not fast enough.

The required solution, according to Hickel, is to reduce the consumption of resources and energy, which will facilitate the rapid transition to renewable energies in the short time left for humanity to avoid 1.5 degrees of global warming. But this imperative would not apply in the same way across the world:

  • Climate change is primarily driven by the cumulative historical consumption of the Global North, so he argues that the onus is on rich countries to shrink their economies. (Disproportionate liability advanced economies support because climate change is also the reason why Hickel rejects calls for population control in the poorest countries as being “completely backward”: “We have a population problem, it’s true,” he said. he said in 2018. “But that has nothing to do with poor countries. The real problem is that there are too many rich people. “)

  • This reduction, in turn, would create space in the global carbon budget for the poorest countries to continue growing, which they still need to do to lift their populations out of poverty.

Critics of degrowth have equated the project with economic austerity or forced recessions, which tend to cause widespread suffering and deepen inequalities. But these negative effects, Hickel says, are just the predictable disaster that follows “when growth-dependent economies stop growing.”

Degrowth, on the other hand, calls for a completely different type of economy, one that could improve people’s livelihoods despite a reduction in overall activity: it seeks to reduce “ecologically destructive and socially less necessary production” (such as SUVs, weapons, beef, private transport, advertising and consumer technologies designed to become obsolete) while expanding “socially important sectors” such as health care and education.

Some of the policies Hickel proposes to create such an economy include shortening the work week, introducing a guaranteed job with a living wage, removing workers from declining industries, and de-commodifying goods like the housing people need to live with dignity.

In a recent newsletter, economist Noah Smith took on the main arguments of degrowth to defend green growth:

  • First, he says that economic growth can, in fact, be decoupled from the use of resources: “We can continue to raise everyone’s standard of living without depleting the planet’s resources. Because growth doesn’t just mean using more and more stuff; instead, it can mean finding more efficient ways to use the things we have. (Hickel rejects the pretend as hypothetical.)

  • Second, and more directly linked to climate change, Smith says that decoupling GDP from greenhouse gas emissions is not only possible, as many declines acknowledge, but is already happening: since 2005 , 32 countries, including the United States, have succeeded in doing so, according to the Breakthrough Institute.

Smith agrees with Hickel, however, that the decoupling of emissions is not happening quickly enough. The question is therefore to know if the decreases offer the right prescription for achieving carbon neutrality in a shorter timeframe.

My colleague Ezra Klein does not think so. The unacceptable slow pace of the transition to renewable energy, he argued in a recent podcast, is a political issue, not a technological one. And politically, degrowth is a much harder sell than green growth.

The degrowth movement “tackles the flaws in the current strategy by not moving forward fast enough when the obstacles are political, but then failing to accept the obstacles to its own political path,” he said. “I think if the political demand of the movement becomes that you don’t eat beef, you will roll back climate policy so far, so quickly, that would be disastrous. Same thing with SUVs. I don’t like SUVs. I don’t drive them. But if you tell people in rich countries that the climate movement is for them not to have the cars they want to have, you’re just going to lose.

This is an argument that Hickel takes seriously:

Eric Levitz, of New York Magazine, agrees that “Americans may well find themselves happier and safer in a very low-carbon community economy in which personal car ownership is severely restricted, and housing is severely restricted. health care and a myriad of low-carbon leisure activities are social components. rights. ”But, he adds,“ anything less than an absolute dictatorship could affect such a transformation at the speed necessary. And the specter of eco-Bolshevism does not haunt the Global North. find a way to get rich sustainably, or to die trying.

At present, degrowth has no mass electorate. But some of its inspiring ideas nonetheless exert an influence on political economic thought – in particular the critique of GDP growth as a vein of human progress.

“Even within the traditional economy, the orthodoxy of growth is being challenged, and not just because of increased awareness of environmental dangers,” John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker last year. . “After a century in which the GDP per person has more than six-folded in the United States, a vigorous debate has arisen over the feasibility and wisdom of creating and consuming more and more things, year after year.”

What is the alternative? Kate Raworth, an English economist, identified one option: “the donut economy”. According to Raworth, 21st century economies should move away from growth for growth and aim to reach the sweet spot – or the donut – between the “social foundation,” where everyone has what they need to live a good life. life, and the “environmental cap”.

“The donut model does not preclude all economic growth or development,” Ciara Nugent explains in Time. “But this economic growth must be seen as a means of achieving social goals within ecological limits, she said, and not as an indicator of success per se, or a goal for rich countries.”

Raworth’s ideas had a real impact: Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Amsterdam’s municipal government announced that it would aim to recover from the crisis by adopting the dictates of “the donut economy ”. A year earlier, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her country would prioritize the well-being and happiness of its residents over GDP growth.

Even in the United States, which has not adopted such a policy, GDP growth has slowed over the past two decades, in large part because of falling birth rates and a shift in spending patterns from goods to services.

It didn’t solve America’s dependence on fossil fuels, of course. “Yet the kinds of policies proposed by degrowth proponents – like universal basic services and shorter working hours – could help remedy some of the long-standing ills that now plague a wide range of economies.” , writes Kate Aronoff in The New Republic. “Rather than pursuing an increasingly distant goal of trying to attract elusive corporate investment with freebies, governments could start planning what fairer growth and a lower carbon future might look like.”


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