In cities, there is more noise, more activity, more crime, more money, even more light pollution. There is more business and more opportunities for growth. Villages and other suburban towns are cleaner, colder, and quieter. The problem is, we need something from both.
A new movement called ‘Degrowth’ has emerged that believes that the answer to the threat of climate change is to transition to an economy beyond waste and continuous growth. The core belief of this movement is very noble, yet may not be practical. It says that the world, especially the rich nations, needs to stop viewing growth and success in terms of GDP growth and the maximisation of wealth. Human wellbeing and happiness should be the main goals of a society and that could also become the answer to tackle climate change.
Uncontrolled growth and unchecked wealth maximisation are absolute evils without doubt. It is true that GDP growth is a statistical construct that tells us nothing about the working conditions in a given society. GDP growth also remains silent about the well-known story of unequal income and wealth in a given society. Most importantly, GDP growth looks the other way when it produces the environmental damage in its ascendance. While the goals and beliefs of the Degrowth movement are noble and quite commendable, the problem, however, is that they are not the silver bullet for climate change.
As mentioned above, the GDP growth doesn’t take into account the environmental damage it creates, Degrowth doesn’t take into account the financial damage that would result from zero growth that the movement’s proponents propose. We know from the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the global carbon emissions need to fall from their current level of 33 billion tons to zero within 30 years. If Degrowth’s agenda is executed, the global GDP would contract by 10% in the next 30 years, which would be equivalent to a financial crisis four times larger than what we experienced in 2007-09. And the reduction in carbon emissions that it would help achieve would also be 10%, which would mean that the global carbon emissions would fall from 33 billion tons to 30 billion tons.
In plain language, we would not get rid of any significant amount of carbon from our atmosphere but would certainly manufacture an economic crisis equivalent of a Great Depression. So, while we would still be trying to figure out what to do with the massive amount of carbon around us, we would have another major problem at our hands and a lot less money to pay for emerging technologies for fighting climate change. The enormous job losses that would result would be worse than the over 30 million jobs lost during the Great Recession of 2007-09.
Therefore, the solution has to be an overlap of and a compromise between the two. Growth is checked, but not by throttling it, rather by blunting its carbon lethality through redesigning the power generation. While carbon is being sucked out of the atmosphere, new emissions must stop also, without switching off the engines of economic growth, but rather switching the engines to clean energy. Any single method is the wrong answer; there has to be a multi-basket solution, if you will. Transition to renewable energy would require the building of a new system. And every time the word ‘building’ is involved, it means new jobs and opportunities would be created. Many experts say that transitioning to such a system would not only not hurt jobs but rather create even more jobs and wealth.
I would personally argue that even if it hurts a little to undergo a lifestyle change, it is worth every short-term loss because this is really about the survival of our posterity. We always make investments for our posterity, let us do some divestment too and move away from dirty energy.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2021.