A number of high-profile economists – people like Carlota Perez and Michael Liebreich – have recently come out swinging in favor of “green growth” theory, trying to assuage mounting public concerns about the fact that climate change and ecological breakdown are being driven by capitalist growth.
What’s interesting about these interventions is that they explicitly pit themselves against their opposite – the idea of de-growth. Even just a year or two ago, de-growth wouldn’t have been part of the conversation. Once the province of ecological economists, it’s now gaining more mainstream attention as the evidence against growth mounts – and orthodox economists have no choice but to reckon with it.
But as they try to edge their way around certain prickly facts, their arguments get stranger and stranger.
Green growth theory relies on the assumption that GDP growth can be permanently and absolutely decoupled from resource use and emissions, and at a pace that’s fast enough to reverse ecological breakdown and keep us under 1.5 degrees, so that GDP can continue growing forever while environmental impacts decline.
There’s just one problem. There’s no evidence that this is feasible.
Let’s start with emissions. Fortunately, we know that GDP can be absolutely decoupled from emissions. The real question is whether we can decarbonize fast enough to stay under 1.5 degrees, without relying on fanciful negative emissions technologies. The answer, sadly, is no. If we carry on with growth as usual, we need to decarbonize at a rate of 11% per year. That’s more than five times faster than the historic rate of decarbonization and about three times faster than what scientists project is possible, even under highly optimistic conditions.
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