This is the second of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here.
The day before the recent global school strike for the climate — where 10,000 people, mostly young, took to the streets in Halifax demanding climate action — there was a two-hour “emergency debate” in the Nova Scotia legislature about the “global emergency,” in which the word “emergency” was used more than 20 times, with apparently little understanding of the word’s meaning.
To notice some of the impacts of a climate on steroids, one needs to only scan the news feeds. Storms, droughts, floods, and heat waves are becoming more frequent and more ferocious. Extreme weather is taking a toll on human health, particularly among vulnerable populations. Entire ecosystems are changing. Forests are literally migrating, endangered species are that much closer to extinction, and the oceans are getting hit from all sides with acidification, loss of sea ice, warmer temperatures, and species loss. Coastal lands are eroding and flooding and at some point maps will have to be redrawn. The province may even become an island.
Despite this, the government’s so-called emergency debate failed to capture the immediacy of the risk, let alone address it. Instead it felt staged, stale and threadbare.
The governing Liberals wasted precious time with a lot of partisan back-patting, talking mostly about their “achievements” while in power. Premier Stephen McNeil used the opportunity to plug how the province was consulting with Nova Scotians about a “new green economy.” He said:
The government believes that we need to protect the environment, but at the same time, we need to grow our economy. One cannot trump the other. We are preparing for an economy of the future, where our children and grandchildren can live and prosper.
McNeil also noted how the private sector has been a “strong ally” in supporting this new green economy.
Apart from Gary Burrill, leader of the NDP, nobody seemed to see through the continued, suicidal, push for growth. “The planet strikers are right to point out that this moment represents a failure of the market economy to rise to the requirements of this crisis,” Burrill stated. “To identify the fact that capitalism, the world of the veneration of the market, does not have the capacity to bring what’s required to walk us back from the edge of the present cliff.”
In Part 1 of this series I began to explore how many of us now recognize that our embrace of the growth model and the flawed assumptions that underpin gross domestic product (GDP) have failed us, and yet we continue to use the language of the growth model when we argue that climate change solutions are opportunities for a better, benign form of growth, for “green growth.”
But what if growing a new green economy isn’t much better than the one we have growing now?
“The Economic Growth Dance”
Anders Hayden has a finger on the pulse of the growing debate about economic growth, green or otherwise, and its alternatives.
Hayden is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University and the author of the 2014 book When Green Growth is Not Enough: Climate Change, Ecological Modernization, and Sufficiency, which compared Canada’s and Britain’s actions on climate change, focusing on three competing approaches to the problem: business as usual, ecological modernization, and sufficiency. On the first page of his book, Hayden raises “the inconvenient issue,” of whether the continued prioritization of economic growth is even compatible with the deep emissions cuts that climate science suggests are urgently necessary.
In an interview with Hayden, I pose his question back to him. “There can be compatibility up to a point,” he says. “If you’re doing things like a large scale energy efficiency retrofit program, you’re going to be creating employment, you’re going to be saving money, and in a province that imports fossil fuels you’re going to reduce the outflow of funds from the region. So there are some conventional economic benefits of actions like that.”
“Capitalism is built on endless cycles of profit-making and capital accumulation,” but this notion of unlimited growth, in which capitalism is so firmly rooted, is a “fantasy,” says Hayden. So, even though some “win-win” situations do exist, new approaches to dealing with climate change need to be able to emerge. “But in the political sphere there has been very little space for those other ideas,” he says, and “gaining political support around alternatives to endless growth” has been difficult.
“Partly it’s about what business wants to hear. They want expansion and profit, but it’s also what labour wants to hear, they want jobs, they’re concerned about employment, and you have to have a message for workers if you’re going to build a political coalition.” Hayden says there’s an “economic growth dance” among those “who acknowledge that endless growth does not make sense on a finite planet and yet they are finding themselves having to go back to these growth-based arguments because they are the ones there’s political space to advance.”
The Energy Emissions Trap
When it comes to the push by those advancing ecological modernization and green growth as the solution to climate change, there are a few important points to consider. First one needs to ask if it’s even technically feasible to transition the world to 100 percent clean, renewable energy, and storage for everything. Hayden points me to Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson, whose forthcoming book tackles this very question, and according to Jacobson, it does appear to be technically and economically feasible to transition to wind, water, and solar.
So, assuming this is true, there’s still a cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emissions permitted over time to stay within a certain temperature threshold. This upper limit is called a carbon budget and The Carbon Tracker Initiative has published a range of them, all derived through modelling, which means outputs (the carbon budget in this case) can vary wildly depending on the inputs, or assumptions fed into the system.
But according to the World Resources Institute, there is some consensus within the international scientific community that the budget is roughly 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. That’s the amount we can emit and still keep average global temperature rise to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels — and averting the most dangerous climate change impacts. We’re currently at about 636 billion tonnes.
The question I’m raising here is what will the effect of ramping up the manufacturing of renewable technologies to replace the current fossil-fuel-dependent systems be on GHG emissions? Won’t it blow us over our carbon budget?
I don’t think anyone could know this for sure, but one Canadian economist, whose ideas about managing our economy without growth will be discussed further later in this series, has at least considered it. In “The Energy-emissions Trap,” a 2018 co-authored study that appeared in the journal Ecological Economics, Peter Victor presented the following dilemma: We must reduce emissions in order to avoid run-a-way climate change, but this reduction will require that we manufacture renewable technologies, processes that will require fossil fuels. The energy-emissions trap results because “an insufficiently rapid transition to renewables will imply a scenario in which it is impossible to avoid either transgressing emissions ceilings or facing energy shortages.”
I spoke to Victor and asked him to explain this further:
It’s a big problem when you have an economy that’s fossil-fuel based and you ask it to very rapidly ramp up in some manufactured item. Where’s that energy going to come from to do that? Well it’s going to come from fossil fuels. So you definitely can get a short term — and the short term can be quite a number of years of course — peaking in emissions simply because you’ve left it so late and you have to now move so fast that it actually raises the requirement for fossil fuels.
Victor also points out that the planet may not be able to support the kind of growth that green growth advocates have in mind. He refers to the nine “planetary boundaries,” and climate change is only one of them. In 2015 a team of international scientists identified nine of these areas that underpin life on earth and they found that on a global level humans are “eating away at our life support systems” at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years. Each of the nine boundaries, many of them inter-related, has a “safe operating space.”
In other words, the Earth can only absorb so much growth and after a certain point it becomes overwhelmed and less hospitable to human life. According to the study authors, we’re pushing the limits with climate change, land system change through land clearing and deforestation, and with biodiversity loss or biosphere integrity. Crossing any of these boundaries “might push the Earth system into a new state,” they predict.
So, if we were able to meet the climate change targets, what about all the other thresholds we seem to be bumping up against?
Victor says solving biodiversity loss, which is highly connected to habitat loss — a result of human activity — is “a much tougher, if you can believe it, much tougher problem to solve than climate change, which is proving enormously difficult as it is.”
I don’t make friends this way, but I think there’s a certain amount of denial on both sides of the climate change debate. You’ve got those who continue to still deny the science, but you have others who deny the implications for our economy of really tackling the problem. There are incentives to say, “we can still have growth.” Growth is so important to so many people, so many governments, so many businesses, that they’re concerned that they’ll lose their audience, they’ll lose their credibility, if they begin to challenge it. So they deny that side of the argument and I think that’s really very dangerous.
Hayden agrees. He says there are other considerations that the green growth model doesn’t really address. He points to all the environmental damage that would necessarily result from the mining and all the extractive activities related to shifting the global energy systems away from fossil fuels.
“The other thing is what’s on the other side of some of these renewable energy projects — like Muskrat Falls — with all the impacts on Indigenous communities?” Hayden asks.
Hayden also points out that policies to reduce demand would have the “potential advantage of being applied more quickly than developing and deploying new technologies.” 1 In other words, he says the task of shifting to 100 percent renewables would be “more manageable” if we were at the same time “reigning in our energy demands.”
Efficiency takes you some of the way, and then you’ve got to add in what Hayden calls “sufficiency,” or knowing when you have enough.
When is Enough, Enough?
If ever there was an antidote to the environmental and societal damage arising from capitalism, it would be found in the ideas of “sufficiency.” It’s also the subject of much of Hayden’s recent work.
There are two sides to sufficiency, he tells me: the idea that we can “live well” within limits or “have enough for a good life,” while also “not consuming so much that it is ecologically excessive,” or “creating harm in terms of undermining the possibilities of other people today and in the future to be able to meet their needs.” Precisely where those boundaries lie is unclear.
Hayden says that when we “move beyond a growth way of thinking” there is a “balanced approach to ecological solutions” that would involve efficiency, greener technologies, and the idea of sufficiency.
“The good news is that in terms of thinking about solutions there’s a whole other side of the question that we’ve barely even tapped.”
Hayden says there’s been some discussion about individual-level strategies to reduce consumption and therefore GHG emissions, like reducing reliance on private vehicles, having more public transit, living in smaller homes, reducing meat and dairy, flying less, and buying less stuff.
But he says what’s needed is for sufficiency to become an organizing principle for society as a whole. “We would definitely shift away from GDP as the indicator of our overall goals, and have other indicators, other ways of measuring progress that are more consistent with a focus on sustainable wellbeing rather than just more production and consumption,” he explains. This kind of recognition then opens up the possibilities for “post-growth alternatives” such as de-growth and a steady-state-economy, ideas we’ll return to later in this series.
Hayden has also written about work–time reduction, and work redistribution, which is also part of a sufficiency perspective. In his seminal 1999 book, Hayden notes that working people have pushed for reduced hours since the start of the industrial revolution and while historically their motivations have been to create more jobs and live healthier lives, today there is another new powerful motivation: “the increasing recognition of ecological limits.” 2
He says there are possibilities for people to have improved quality of life, not through more consumption or income but through more leisure time. “That’s a way that you could improve wellbeing in a way that’s far less consumption-oriented.”
Hayden says our adherence to making economic growth the priority “needs to be discarded,” which means a policy would be judged based on its environmental and social benefit, not on how it would affect GDP. “That should no longer be a deciding factor,” he says.
“We need to do what we need to do on the ecological front and do it in a way that maintains high levels of social equity and protects people. We need to get on with those tasks, and if doing that does something that knocks the GDP growth rate down then that shouldn’t be a reason against doing it.”
- Hayden, Anders. 2020. “Sufficiency.” In Routledge Handbook of Global Sustainability Governance, edited by A. Kalfagianni, D. Fuchs, and A. Hayden. Abingdon, UK: Routledge. ↩
- Hayden, Anders. 1999. Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet. Work Time, Consumption and Ecology. Between the Lines. Toronto, pp. 1-2. ↩