Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
I have enjoyed both Giorgos Kallis’s essay and the stimulating debate. Two issues seem particularly interesting to me.
First, the debate seems to mirror an interesting transatlantic distinction: Why is it that the degrowth debate is so "European"? To be sure, a number of scientists and NGO representatives in the US support degrowth, and there are some very good publications coming out of the US. Yet overall, it seems to remain a rather small niche here. In contrast, degrowth on the other side of the Atlantic is highly en vogue. Most degrowth-related publications nowadays come from "old Europe," and at last year’s Degrowth Conference in Leipzig, the 2,700 participants from all over the continent broke records.
Second, whether we can remain agnostic to growth, or support continued (green) growth, all depends on the issue of decoupling. Is it possible to decouple (gross national) income from energy and resource consumption? The literature conventionally distinguishes between absolute and relative decoupling. Yet I think for industrialized countries with high ecological footprints, this question has become obsolete. Relative decoupling is not an option anymore, because we are already living in overshoot (however, the concept of relative decoupling might still be valid for poor and resource-low countries). Absolute decoupling might not be enough either, if energy and resource use only slowly declines, e.g., proportionally to GDP growth. We need to reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of ten in less than four decades. Industrialized countries, therefore, actually need "radical absolute decoupling": if GDP keeps growing by, say, 3% per year on average, resource and energy use must decline several times more steeply than GDP goes up.
How likely is such "radical absolute decoupling"? At least three factors militate against it.
(1) Rebound effects: As long as the economy keeps growing, energy and resource efficiency improvements will be countervailed by increased demand, so-called rebound effects. Although I think that backfire (rebound > 100%) is not the norm, even moderate rebound effects in the order of 20 to 60% will thwart a radical absolute decoupling.
(2) Geographical Leakage: A global cap on emissions (and, eventually, on other environmentally damaging resources) could eventually prevent rebound effects. Yet those of us who believe in global environmental justice (including climate justice) suggest that such a cap is not fair today; instead, common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities should apply. Fairness requires that, for some good number of years down the road, different environmental standards remain in the Global North and South. Given this, as well as cheaper labor costs in the Global South, the tertiarization of industrial economies will continue. Radical absolute decoupling in the Global North will be much more challenging if embodied energy and resource use in trade is factored in.
(3) Shifting of environmental media: The transition of energy systems from fossil to renewable sources will reduce GHG emissions, but at the same time increase the use of other natural resources. However, most of natural resource use ought to decline. If sustainability is not only pictured through the lens of climate change, but is also geared towards protecting terrestrial ecosystems, oceans, biodiversity, human environmental health, indigenous cultures, etc., a radical absolute decoupling of multiple natural resources at the same time appears very challenging.
I am not sure if there are any degrowth supporters who demand to start shrinking the economy immediately. Rather, as Giorgis Kallis has pointed out, degrowth is a vision, a paradigm shift. This paradigm shift starts from the fact that radical absolute decoupling is by and large utopian. To be sure, this does not make the task at hand any easier. If growth rates fall below 3% on average, current systems of pension funds, public spending, financial markets, etc., have to been rethought. The challenge is tremendous. The transition towards environmental sustainability requires much more than environmental policymaking.
Alas, what is a viable alternative if radical decoupling doesn’t work? “Green growth,” selective/smart growth, etc., would have been great concepts back in the 1980s. Too bad, that it is already 2015, and that ecological footprints have been rising and rising and rising. Standing close to the edge of the precipice, merely walking slower, smarter, or with environmentally sound shoes, won’t do.