The recent IPCC report has received widespread attention. The report states that rapid and bold actions are necessary to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change and that the goals of the Paris Accord will be insufficient. This has resulted in an outpouring of opinion pieces calling for individuals to take actions in their daily lives to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to pressure elected officials to take significant steps to support renewable energy. This sense of urgency is critically needed, yet most of these calls for action are misguided due to a widespread misdiagnosis of the climate change problem.
To address a problem, it is most effective to identify the root cause. One might argue that the root cause of climate change is fossil fuel combustion. However, this overlooks how our current economic system not only continues to protect and sustain the fossil fuel industry but also drives the continuous increases in production and consumption causing environmental degradation at large. What is this system? Growth-dependent capitalism. Here we focus on the impacts of that growth. The prioritization of economic growth is what makes highly effective actions, such as buying-out or nationalizing fossil fuels and keeping them in the ground, infeasible. A recently released UN document, related to the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report, suggests that the root cause of climate change is the economic system, namely one that prioritizes profits at the expense of ecological and social well-being.
"We need to move beyond an economy that prioritizes growth."
Evidence is mounting that demonstrates how prioritizing a growing economy is the true driver of climate change. Data shows a positive relationship between economic growth and GHG emissions. This makes sense since GDP growth correlates with material production, including carbon: GDP growth by 1% equals a 0.6% growth in material use and a 0.5–0.7% increase in carbon emissions. Even scientists working on carbon budgets have come forward stating that reducing GHG emissions is incompatible with economic growth. While proponents of “green growth” support the idea of increasing GDP while reducing GHG emissions (known as absolute decoupling), this has yet to be realized. Studies show that decoupling in developed nations has been a result of increased carbon-intensive production in developing nations.
Greening growth through alternative energy, efficient technology, and carbon markets has had limited and paradoxical impacts. Efficiency gains are in many cases partially or completely offset by increased consumption. Because we are not implementing policies to decrease fossil fuel use, a unit of energy produced by alternative energy does not replace a unit of energy produced by fossil fuels and is correlated with increased total energy use. In a system prioritizing economic growth, the effectiveness of green alternatives will continue to be constrained by increasing levels of production and consumption. In addition, market mechanisms that prioritize profit have not slowed climate change. The EU Emissions Trading System, the oldest and largest carbon market, has not dramatically reduced emissions. In 2017, the EU policy director stated that “the EU carbon market will continue to fail at its task to spur green investments and phase out coal.” Due to these realities, we need to move beyond an economy that prioritizes growth.
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But isn’t economic growth critical for a thriving society and human well-being? Actually, economic growth has only been a social priority for a relatively short time. As stated by ecological economist Herman Daly, it is largely believed that “without economic growth all progress is at an end.” He counters this belief by asserting, “[o]n the contrary, without growth . . . true progress finally will have a chance.” Stopping economic growth doesn’t mean we cannot meet our needs. We will still have enough. We will simply put an end to the production and consumption of more and more unnecessary things that harm us and the environment for the sake of a 3% annual increase in GDP. In fact, studies show that economic growth that goes beyond satisfying basic needs does not increase happiness. What it does is push us beyond ecological limits in dangerous ways. By putting growth in its place, we can prioritize people, climate, and prosperity before profit. More and more people are starting to question whether a capitalist system that prioritizes profit and growth above all is really a good thing.
"To accurately diagnose the climate change problem, we have to get at the root – our economic system."
These ideas are spurring on an increasing number of academic and activist projects that offer alternatives. For example, the degrowth movement supports planned economic contraction and dematerialization in developed nations. Degrowth proponents explain why people would be happier in this new economic system. While there would be reduced total material production and consumption, there would be growth in social services, well-being, sharing, community agriculture, energy and worker cooperatives, not to mention a stronger sense of community. This does not necessitate living without modern conveniences, just not more and more of them. A range of degrowth policies have been proposed, including work time reduction, which has been shown to reduce material production, energy use, and GHG emissions while increasing health and well-being. Policies to reduce working hours would represent a critical step in restructuring our economy to address climate change.
Perhaps this all seems radical. That would be appropriate, as the word “radical” from the Latin radicalis means relating to the root. To accurately diagnose the climate change problem, we have to get at the root – our economic system. As the authors of the UN document explains, we need to “focus on life-improving and emissions-reducing goals rather than abstract economic goals.” They call for a new system where “economic activity will gain meaning not by achieving economic growth but by rebuilding infrastructure and practices toward a post-fossil fuel world with a radically smaller burden on natural ecosystems.” They conclude by making clear that “states are the only actors that have the legitimacy and capacity to fund and organize large-scale transitions.” While communities move forward with important projects that put ecosystems and people first, we also need to push our governments to recognize economic growth as the root cause of climate change and implement policies to re-create our economy.