Last week I wrote about the and its confidence in the compatibility of economic growth and a safe climate. I suggested that politicians and the media were hearing what they wanted to hear without actually reading the report, because it doesn’t actually promise to halt climate change. But there’s another thing that goes unnoticed when you try to fight climate change while growing the economy – you commit yourself to an endless war on carbon.
That’s because until they are disconnected from each other, more growth means more carbon. If the economy is growing, then it is constantly clawing back any progress on cutting emissions. The proposed solution is decoupling growth and emissions through carbon productivity – making more money for each tonne of emissions. But you have to pursue efficiency faster than the economy is growing, otherwise you’re just running on the spot. This is the difference between relative decoupling and absolute decoupling, a crucial distinction that is glaringly absent from the New Climate Economy paper.
Fighting climate change while growing the economy is to be content to constantly take two steps forward and one step back – and bear in mind that we’re currently taking one step forward and two back, since absolute emissions are still growing.
Not only that, but you have to keep doing it indefinitely. Ongoing growth without destabilising the climate requires a constant industrial revolution, a permanent war footing, because every year you have to take more carbon out of the economy to compensate for the growth.
The New Climate Economy admits as much. Their study runs up to 2030, and they suggest that the carbon productivity of the global economy needs to improve by around 3-4% a year, every year to 2030. But there’s no transition, no ‘arrival’ at a safe place by 2030. Quite the opposite:
“In 2030–2050, the improvement in carbon productivity would need to accelerate again, to around 6–7% per year, to stay on track.”
Or later in the same report:
“The low-carbon transition will not end in 2030. Much deeper reductions will be required in later years, to take global emissions down to less than 20 Gt CO2e by 2050 and near zero or below in the second half of the century.”
McKinsey’s Carbon Productivity Challenge, which also argues for growth, has the same problems. They argue that the carbon productivity of the economy has to increase tenfold between now and 2050. This would be an epic transformation of the economy “comparable in magnitude to the labour productivity of the Industrial Revolution”, but carried out in a third of the time. But since they don’t expect growth the stop in 2050, even a monumental achievement like that wouldn’t be the end of the transition.
Neither report mentions the future beyond 2050, perhaps because the further ahead you think –2080, 2100 – the more absurd the maths becomes. Since the pro-growth reports don’t run with it, here’s Tim Jackson:
“Beyond 2050, of course, if growth is to continue, so must efficiency improvements. With growth at 2% a year from 2050 to the end of the century, the economy in 2100 is 40 times the size of today’s economy. And to all intents and purposes, nothing less than complete decarbonisation of every single dollar will do to achieve carbon targets.”
And that’s at 450 ppm of CO2. If we take 400 or 350 ppm as the safe point, “by 2100 we will need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The carbon intensity of each dollar of economic output will have to be less than zero.” At this point, once we require efficiency rates of 100% or greater, we’re off into the world of perpetual motion machines and alchemy.
This is why the transition to a post-growth economy is so important to the transition beyond carbon. With a post-growth economy, we can genuinely transition – there is a safe place to aim for on the other side. That is not true of the mainstream vision of growth. With endless economic growth comes an endless war against carbon emissions, and ultimately a war with the laws of physics.