If climate wonks have a Holy Grail, it’s decoupling rising greenhouse gas emissions from a rising GDP. Paths to economic growth have historically involved digging up and burning massive stores of carbon held in fossil fuels. For centuries, their fumes have produced the energy needed to build factories, plan modern cities, and increase living standards.
Calls to find new paths to prosperity are met by cries from the Right that pit growth against environmental stewardship. Take dirty energy out of the mix, they say, and the chances for a better life for billions crumble.
“We frankly don’t have an option,” United Nations climate chief Christiana Figures recently told journalist Elizabeth Kolbert about decoupling. Growth and falling emissions, she warned, “are absolutely key to being able to feed, house, and educate the two billion more family members who will be joining us.”
Dips in the steady rise of greenhouse gases, tellingly, all stem from economic retraction — from the oil crisis of the 1970s to the fall of the Soviet Union. A study released last summer in Nature found that from 2007–2013 emissions dropped by a full 11 percent. “The economic recession of 2008–9 may have hurt your bank account,” one Los Angeles Times article on the report began, “but new analysis suggests it was good for the planet.”
Rejecting Malthusianism here seems obvious: recessions hurt now, climate change hurts later, so we should value short-term profits and growth over long-term stability. Hard-nosed politicians and policy makers, then, argue that the only realistic way to tackle climate change is to design an economy that’s both green and growing, with an emphasis on the latter: “If we get this right,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told the UN in 2014, “there’s no need for a trade-off between economic growth and reducing carbon emissions.”
Properly incentivized, alternative clean technologies can out-compete fossil fuels, Cameron argues. But there is no proposed alternative to endless growth.
A few weeks ago, Cameron seemed to get his wish. A study from the International Energy Agency announced that, through 2014 and 2015, carbon dioxide emissions leveled off while global GDP grew.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) made similar findings, releasing a list of twenty-one countries that expanded growth without piling a fresh batch of destructive emissions on our shared future. After receiving a warm response from press, the studies will no doubt be on the tongues of the over one hundred diplomats in New York today to mark Earth Day by signing off on the Paris Agreement.
Some more unlikely greens are excited too. The American Enterprise Institute’s Benjamin Zycher told Scientific American he was skeptical, but cautiously optimistic about what the studies might mean if proven right: “If the market left to its own devices is stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, then why do we need COP21 and all the rest?”
Scientists are less sanguine. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the United Kingdom’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, told the Guardian that those trying to avert environmental catastrophe should leave behind the market dogma tied to the optimism around decoupling:
If we are serious about meeting our Paris obligation we need to remember that physics has a 13 billion year history whilst the current economic model is simply an ephemeral construct. Pandering to the latter at the expense of the former is a fool’s game, regardless of its immediate political appeal.
In fact, a close look at the decoupling studies shows how misleading they are. Global emissions have dropped, but they’re falling far more slowly than they should to cap warming at the 1.5 degrees called for at COP21; the studies’ carbon budget does not include aviation or transportation, artificially inflating decoupling’s gains; figures in both reports do not count methane, the greenhouse gas being released with new abandon by the global fracking boom; and with the exception of the United States and Uzbekistan, every country listed in the WRI study is European.
Emissions, in other words, aren’t plummeting — they’re being offshored. Old-fashioned, carbon-hungry growth has moved south as finance capital and a poorly-paying service sector bloom up north, made possible by armies of low-waged workers up and down commodity chains. The spoils of this low-carbon growth are reserved for a wealthy minority.
Capitalist growth has never been green or just. The decoupling studies are poor evidence that it could become either. Why not, as British economist Ann Pettifor has argued, abandon the concept of growth entirely?
As she explains, growth — as the go-to metric for economic prosperity — was invented in the 1960s to replace the Keynesian focus on “levels” of factors like unemployment and inflation.
Full employment in the United Kingdom was seen as insufficiently profitable, so “growth men” set new targets to be met with credit booms and deregulation. “While markets, banks, firms, and millions of individuals ‘crashed and burned,’ the economic theory and policies behind limitless growth were untouched,” Pettifor writes. As the planet itself threatens to crash and burn, benchmarks for growth remain intact.
Renouncing growth as a metric, though, doesn’t mean renouncing economic progress—particularly for the places already worst-hit by budget cuts and shrinking public sectors.
Austerity, justified by capitalism’s growth-fueled booms and busts, could prove as harmful to the planet as climate-change denialism. Panics about the deficit ceiling gripped the United States post-crash, and — once the crisis rolled through southern Europe — creditors traded bailouts for brutal cuts.
The troika has pushed Greece to double down on extraction, to privatize state oil and electricity companies, and to drill for oil and natural gas in the Aegean Sea. Rather than expanding public spending, as they did after the Great Depression, Global North governments retracted it, making a tight belt even tighter.
The trillions of dollars in public investment needed to update energy grids and retrain fossil-fuel workers, for instance, are now all but locked down — not to mention the funds needed for transition programs as ambitious as universal basic income or federal job guarantees.
Beyond the growth-first fundamentalism of the decoupling obsession, though, hides a central question: can prosperity really exist without fossil fuels, especially for those who have had their economies hollowed out by neoliberalism? Calls to “live within our ecological limits,” as some degrowth advocates put it, flirt dangerously with the language of austerity.
How should the over 50 percent of jobless Greek youths live more in tune with the earth? We have no models for bouncing back from economic hardship that don’t involve upticks in either extraction or production.
As oil companies lay off workers by the tens of thousands, environmentalists’ attention should shift from decoupling and green growth to redistribution, to raising standards of living without raising temperatures or deepening inequality.
The Paris Agreement being signed today is woefully inadequate to take on the crisis at hand, reliant on shady market incentives to curtail emissions, and slated to raise temperatures by 3.5 degrees Celsius in the best-case scenario.
But in its shortcomings might also be an opportunity — to point out the flaws of growth-first environmentalism and propose a redistributive alternative, with policies as inspiring as they are capable of feeding, housing, and educating.
There are many more things wrong with the economy than its reliance on fossil fuels. Capitalism’s addiction to dirty energy is just one reason it is deeply unsustainable.
Fixating on growth — in the positive or the negative — limits our ability to envision a just, democratic, and thoroughly sustainable economy. If there is a decoupling in order, it’s not growth from carbon, but capitalism from the planet’s future.