IS GREEN GROWTH THE SOLUTION?
The notion of green growth has emerged as a dominant policy response to climate change and ecological breakdown. Green growth theory asserts that continued economic expansion is compatible with our planet’s ecology, as technological change and substitution will allow us to absolutely decouple GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. This claim is now assumed in national and international policy, including in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
But empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory. There is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth. Our current economic model is absolutely dependent on indefinite growth. Furthermore absolute decoupling from carbon emissions is highly unlikely to be achieved at a rate rapid enough to prevent global warming over 1.5°C or 2°C, even under optimistic policy conditions.
THE HISTORY OF GREEN GROWTH
Green growth is a term to describe a path of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable. It is based on the understanding that, as long as economic growth remains a predominant goal, a decoupling of economic growth from resource use and adverse environmental impacts is required. The UN describes a green economy as one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.
The concept of green growth has its origins in the Asia and Pacific Region. At the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development (MCED) held in March 2005 in Seoul, 52 Governments and other stakeholders from Asia and the Pacific agreed to move beyond the sustainable development rhetoric and pursue a path of “green growth”.
As with the green economy, green growth attracted significant attention as a way out of economic turmoil in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. At the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting in June 2009, 30 members and five prospective members (comprising approximately 80% of the global economy) approved a declaration acknowledging that green and growth can go hand-in-hand, and asked the OECD to develop a green growth strategy bringing together economic, environmental, technological, financial and developmental aspects into a comprehensive framework (UNESCAP, 2012). Since then, the OECD has become one of a number of major proponents of green growth and supports efforts of countries to implement green growth.
A number of other international organisations, think tanks and academics have also turned their attention to green growth, including the World Bank and the Green Growth Leaders.
AN EXAMPLE OF GREEN GROWTH
India has experienced green growth since the 1980s. This is a commendable achievement for a developing country and the fourth-largest energy consumer in the world. Energy efficiency has improved in fast-growing sectors. Most energy-intensive industries (such as iron and steel, fertiliser, petroleum refining, cement and pulp and paper), which account for the bulk of the energy, have recorded significant energy efficiency.
LIMITATIONS OF GREEN GROWTH AS A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
Capitalism in reliant on growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. Those who defend capitalism argue that, as consumption switches from goods to services, economic growth can be decoupled from the use of material resources.
While some relative decoupling took place in the 20th Century (material resource consumption grew, but not as quickly as economic growth), in the 21st Century there has been a recoupling: rising resource consumption has so far matched or exceeded the rate of economic growth.
Green growth also affects social and natural capital. Resources are required to produce batteries for use in electric vehicles. More than half of the world’s lithium resources are found beneath the salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, where indigenous quinoa farmers and llama herders must now compete with miners for water in one of the world’s driest regions. Solar farms have a significant footprint reducing the land available for farming or rewilding.
George Monbiot argues that the absolute decoupling needed to avert environmental catastrophe (a reduction in material resource use) has never been achieved, and appears impossible while economic growth continues. Increasing use of material resources, means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations. We are already extracting resources beyond the capacity of the planet. Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources in a given year exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in that year. In 2020, it fell on August 22.
The elephant in the room is degrowth. Green growth does not address this. This means incorporating the ideas around circularity but also degrowth. The Earth Logic Action Plan sets out why the fashion sector should reduce its use of virgin resources by 75% by 2030.
NEW ECONOMIC MODELS
There are exciting, new models proposed that seek to address the limitations of green growth.
Circularity is about maximising the use of resources through such strategies as recycling and shared ownership. Although it reduces environmental impact, it does not address increasing consumption as the standard of living in developing countries increases. The dilemma is that we are still extracting resources on a finite planet; just less. The circular economy does, however, offer a transitional model to significantly reduce resource extraction.
Earth Logic is a radical proposal proposed by Kate Fletcher for a planet-first approach putting earth as the priority above everything including profit. Although its focus is the fashion industry, its principles are applicable to any sector. Earth Logic is based on asking what the sustainability case is for business not the business case for sustainability.
Doughnut economics is a model developed by Kate Raworth. Central to the approach is that humankind’s requirements for well-being (food, shelter, sanitation), as set out within the sustainable development goals (SDGs), must be met within planetary boundaries.
As environmental and social activists, we need to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative, a vision for a regenerated planet and culture. Because economic systems affect every aspect of our lives, we need many minds from various disciplines – economic, environmental, political, cultural, social and logistical – working collaboratively to create a better way of organising ourselves that meets our needs without destroying the needs of nature and the planet.
The transition to more sustainable, regenerative models needs to be democratic, inclusive and equitable. There needs to be a safe and just place as proposed by Kate Raworth in her 2012 Oxfam paper.
As we transition to net-zero and a fair society we must end extracting wealth and resources from the global South and show solidarity to communities such that we don’t entrench poverty and unsafe working conditions in developing countries. Financing for the fossil fuel industry, as well as other extractive sectors, needs to stop. Workers impacted by the shift to degrowth need to be integrated in the new economy and the impact of artificial intelligence must be incorporated into our plans.
The seismic changes required must engage all stakeholders in our societies in a meaningful manner. Best practice needs to be shared by business and organisations facilitated by initiatives like Science Based Targets and BCorporation. Organisations such as Business Declares and Architects Declares can play a powerful role in changing the mindset of industry. To achieve authentic action, education is also crucial whether through alternative media channels or conferences and seminars.
We must also not be blinkered into thinking that one new model will fit all countries. Different societies will need different blueprints for change.