From frenetic expansion to steady states
Challenging free trade orthodoxy is a heavy lift in our political culture; anything that has been in place for that long takes on an air of inevitability. But, critical as these shifts are, they are not enough to lower emissions in time. To do that, we will need to confront a logic even more entrenched than free trade–the logic of indiscriminate economic growth. This idea has understandably inspired a good deal of resistance among more liberal climate watchers, who insist that the task is merely to paint our current growth-based economic model green, so it’s worth examining the numbers behind the claim.
It is Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and one of Britain’s top climate experts, who has most forcefully built the case that our growth-based economic logic is now in fundamental conflict with atmospheric limits. Addressing everyone from the UK Department for International Development to the Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, the spiky-haired former mechanical engineer (who used to work in the petrochemical sector) lays out a rigorous roadmap for cutting our emissions down to a level that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2º Celsius.
But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous...Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast. With his colleague Alice Bows-Larkin, an atmospheric physicist and climate change mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson argues that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies–all while emissions ballooned–that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the core expansionist logic at the heart of our economic system.
They argue that, if the governments of developed countries want a 50-50 chance of hitting the agreed-upon international target of keeping warming below 2º Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle between rich and poor nations, then wealthy countries need to start cutting their greenhouse gas emissions by something like 8% to 10% a year–and they need to start right now. The idea that such deep cuts are required used to be controversial in the mainstream climate community, where the deadlines for steep reductions always seemed to be far off in the future (an 80% cut by 2050, for instance). But as emissions have soared and as tipping points loom, that is changing rapidly. Even Yvo de Boer, who held the UN’s top climate position until 2009, remarked recently that “the only way” negotiators “can achieve a 2º goal is to shut down the whole global economy.”
That is a severe overstatement, yet it underlines Anderson and Bows-Larkin’s point that we cannot achieve 8% to 10% annual cuts with the array of modest carbon-pricing or green tech solutions usually advocated by Big Green. These measures will certainly help, but they are simply not enough. That’s because an 8% to 10% drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1% per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5% over a period of 10 years). Nor did this level of reduction happen beyond a single-year blip after Wall Street crashed in 2008. Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10% annually, but that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.
If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows-Larkin describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations.”
Now, I realise that this can all sound apocalyptic–as if reducing emissions requires economic crises that result in mass suffering. But that seems so only because we have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, while failing to place value on those things that most of us cherish above all–a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with one another. So what Anderson and Bows-Larkin are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.