Emissions targets and economic growth are wildly incompatible: are we ready for adaptation?


Our emissions trajectory shows that radical behavioural changes, not market efficiencies and technological innovation, are pre-eminent if we are to abate climate change. If we have the willpower, there are also great opportunities for safeguarding welfare.

The COP21 Paris agreement on climate change calls member states to a common goal of preventing global temperature increase beyond 2 degree Celsius. This target requires halving our current emission trajectory, stabilizing atmospheric carbon content at 450 parts per million (ppm) by 2050 - a threshold that at our current pace will be passed in 2036.


Rapid adaptations required to meet this target will challenge the moral and cultural precedents of how we support human welfare, forcing a great restructuring of economies. The responsibility to act is both concentrated and distributed, demanding international cooperation.


In the well-worn discussions of sustainable development the question dominates: how can economic growth deliver ecological and social security?


There are proponents of free-market economics who believe our ecological challenges can be met by the untamed creativity of fluid capital, daring entrepreneurs and enlightened consumers. In their logic, the forces of the earth will convey in appropriate market pricing of ‘commodities’: people, minerals, biodiversity, pollution.


They pray that our rational economic super-being will rear its golden mane and migrate with adorned purchasing power towards environmental stability.


And to some extent, they are right. For instance, OECD nations increasingly use less materials and emit less green house gasses (GHGs) per economic unit output (Goodall and Jackson). The carbon intensity of the US and the UK economies, even, have decreased by over 40% since 1980.


But this measure, known as ‘relative’ decoupling, measures only the amount of carbon, or material, embodied in each pound or dollar of an economy. This measure is different from ‘absolute decoupling’, which measures the total (net) amount of materials required by an economy.


In the UK, there has even been absolute decoupling of material intensity for a range of key resources since 1990, despite a 10% increase in population and GDP growth by a factor of 2.5. UK net GHG emissions have fallen more than 30% since 1990; biomass consumption (food and natural fibre) has fallen slightly, and so too has mineral extraction.


Caution should be given to these statistics, as they typically fail to account for emissions of offshore production (which of course, is now the majority of our consumption) (Goodall 2012, p.36).


Still, there is across the board a pattern of plateauing material intensity in all developed countries, which writer and campaigner Chris Goodall argues is the markings of the era of ‘peak stuff’.


Free-market advocates will be quick to accord these gains to capitalism’s lean growth engine, as competition on price encourages production efficiency. But the plateau is also due to a cultural shift to consuming more ‘dematerialised’ services (i.e. digital media, education, live entertainment and such like), along with increasing sustainability legislation and ethical pressure.


Looking at global carbon intensity, the picture has some similarity to OECD countries, but also major differences. For the indicator of relative decoupling (resource intensity per dollar) there is, though gradual, a positive global outlook for carbon, falling from 1kg/$ in 1980 to 770g/$ in 2006. In 2014 alone, there was a 2.7% reduction in carbon intensity.


But the relative picture is gravely different from the decoupling of global absolute carbon output. Since 1990 (the Kyoto protocol base year), global emissions have increased by over 80%.


The rate of construction and consumption in newly developing countries is such that even relative decoupling has not occurred for key primary resources. Cement production has grown 70% faster than GDP, and structural metals (iron ore, bauxite, copper and nickel) are also being extracted faster than GDP growth. This means the amount of the materials embodied in each economic unit has increased. On top of this, our consumption of productive arable lands continues to increase, along with deforestation and land clearance, and global fish stocks approach collapse as pillars of ocean ecologies are severed.


United Nations study predicts as a mid-range estimate the global population will be 9 billion by 2050. If we continue ‘business-as-usual’ with 1.4% average income growth complimented by continued marginal reductions in carbon intensity we will achieve an 80% increase in carbon emissions by the same date.


To achieve the 2 degree target then, carbon intensity must fall 21-fold, to 40gC02/$. Importantly, in this scenario no allowances have been made to address poverty and inequality beyond the current trajectory.


Priority Sectors and Nations


The massive economic restructuring required to protect our environment must address the largest sources of emissions and resource use.


In hierarchy of emissions, economic sectors are ranked highest to lowest: Electricity and heat production (25%); Livestock/agriculture, forestry and land use (24%); Industry (i.e. manufacturing, construction, processing) (21%); Transportation (14%); Buildings (6%); and Other energy (e.g. unaccounted domestic and public utilities) (10%).


Just 10 nations, on the other hand (though problematically, ‘one’ is the EU), represent 69% of global emissions. China, the US and the EU alone represent 54% of GHGs.


As economic growth is founded on increasing material extraction and throughput, it is unsurprising that this massive concentration of environmental responsibility mirrors global concentrations of wealth. Consumption in all the listed priority sectors is dominated by these 10 ten countries, as together they accord roughly 70% of global GDP.


The Paris agreement distinguishes countries that have a historic responsibility for climate change, and those that have the financial or technological capability to act. Evidently, these 10 nations are eligible in both criteria. Hypothetically, if they could each reduce national consumption by 72.4% the necessary halving of global emissions would be achieved.


To return to the concept of decoupling, however, it is unlikely that such a concentration of consumption can be abated by efficiency gains in products and processing alone. The need for radical behavioural change becomes clear, both in personal consumption choices and national economic strategy.


Equality in a low Carbon World


In the scenarios projected so far, current levels of international income inequality have remained the same. As such, to bluntly cap emissions now would be to exclude low-income countries from pursuing the welfare gains of historically fossil fuel powered economic growth.


Tim Jackson’s deconstruction of the growth dilemma is an arresting image of global equality and its implications for climate change (though published in 2009, his equations should now be accelerated, exacerbated by 7 years of near inaction).


Jackson finds that for the entire world to have a standard of living equal to Europeans in 2050, the world economy must grow 6-fold – a 3.9% increase of average incomes each year. To stabilise even a dangerous atmospheric carbon content of 450ppm in this scenario, carbon intensity must fall by 9% per year to 14gC02/$, 55 times lower than today.


And this scenario does not even include the typical 2% annual growth in developed economies, which would then require carbon intensity per dollar to fall 130 times faster than it currently is. The global economy would have to be perfectly decarbonized by the turn of the century, which fortunately is an aim of the COP21 Paris outcome, however weak its legislation may be.


Of course it is unacceptable to block low-income countries from pursuing greater welfare, not least because their exclusion from wealth is at once the same historical extraction of wealth from them (see: the history of colonialism).


Without international support for welfare satiation in developing nations, to amend the ‘climate debt’ of industrialised nations, low-income nations should feel little obligation for compliance to emissions targets. That the Global South will be most impacted by climate change is perhaps the only reason why they will comply to low-carbon development. A force of dark irony.


Cross-national funding for low-carbon development and climate adaption is a key outcome of the Paris agreement. However, the funding targets do not even begin to address the scale of the required transition, appearing more as charity gestures in the face of systemic unviability.


For developing countries to attain low-carbon welfare integrity, there must be enduring international support. Why else should they comply with an alternative path of development solely to clean up the messes of now-affluent societies?


Technology transfer, technical (incl. political/managerial) support, and foremost, favourable terms of trade, taxation, debt remission and investment, will all be critical in helping economies of the Global South to assign long term value to ecological and human assets.



It is clear our current mode of development will not lead us to the necessary emission reductions. Nor will we increase welfare equality in the current mode.


Efficiency gains in products and processing will not happen fast enough to balance the capitalist political order with ecological viability. Economic growth cannot be decoupled from material throughput fast enough, and we therefore must endorse a new culture of low-growth; of doing more with less.


Radical behavioural change is required – in macro-economic priorities, public infrastructure investment, welfare coordination, and consumer choice.


Quite radically, it is possible that reducing economic growth is not at odds with increasing wellbeing. Many leading commentators have suggested wellbeing in advanced liberal economies has plateaued, as work-life pressures and rampant competition in everything from wages to fashion (i.e. foci of advertising industries) have saturated the individual psyche and community relationships.


In reducing our economic output there are numerous opportunities for restructuring livelihoods and increasing wellbeing.


To briefly name a few synergies of ‘dematerialising’:

  • Reduced working hours = reduced commercial energy use, greater personal time, reduced traffic and single-use commodities of treadmill working routines.
  • ‘Collaborative consumption’ (e.g. public energy and transport ownership, car sharing, domestic appliance co-ownership, cooperative agriculture) = stronger community relationships, lower individual cost, and a renaissance of repair and maintenance skills.
  • Sustainable diets (i.e. lower meat consumption, localised production) = integration with bioregions, bodily health and more fulfilling relationships with food.
  • Sustainable sub-urban to urban transport (i.e. cycling, walking and public transport links) = reduced traffic and faster commuting, clean air, lifestyle vitality.


The restructuring of energy use remains the largest issue requiring society-wide cooperation, and must be approached through combinations of social and technological innovation.


We cannot reasonably expect to meet current commercial energy demands - the largest energy using sector - with renewable energy, and therefore must first prioritise basic public need. This calls for new energy management partnerships that will not be delivered by growth-based economies or technological innovation alone.


How such idealism can be achieved in a world of competition and fear is dumbfounding. But knowing the distance we must travel to reach our goals, we can ask: are we ready for the moral and material challenge ahead? Are we interested enough to engage new behaviors - To allow political, economic or cultural concessions? To decouple from growth?


Or are we content with our lot - excluding future generations, current global citizens, and even ourselves from lasting wellbeing?

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