New climate models needed to highlight necessity of post economic growth strategies to tackle climate change

We’re gambling the future of humanity and the rest of life on earth because of the assumption that GDP must continue to grow in rich countries
- Jason Hickel
Powerstation. Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

New climate models which challenge the assumption that wealthy countries can continue to pursue economic growth, while mitigating the impact of climate change, must be developed urgently to help inform realistic public and policy debate, say academics writing in the journal Nature Energy.

The academics call for scientists who develop climate models to explore post-growth approaches which are designed to keep economies stable without growth, while improving people’s lives.

They point out that existing models, which are based on continued economic growth, gamble on dramatic and potentially unfeasible technological change to meet the Paris Agreement goals of keeping global warming below 1.5°C or 2°C.

Economic growth is projected to drive a significant increase in energy demand over the coming decades, making climate mitigation more difficult. If high-income countries continue to grow at their usual rates, they will need to decarbonize their economic outputs by more than 12 per cent a year, which will be a significant challenge.

The authors raise concerns that assumptions about negative emissions technologies are “speculative and risky”.  For example, scaling up bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would require massive amounts of agricultural land and water to grow crops for biofuels.

Direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) may avoid some of these problems, but could use up to 50 per cent of the world’s current electricity generation to achieve the carbon removal rates assumed in existing scenarios, making it difficult to decarbonize the global energy supply.

Dr Jason Hickel, lead author of the paper and Visiting Senior Fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), said: “Scientists have raised substantial questions about the risks of negative emissions technologies and the feasibility sufficiently decoupling economic growth from rising emissions. Put bluntly, these approaches may not be adequate to address the crisis we face.   

“We’re gambling the future of humanity and the rest of life on earth because of the assumption that GDP must continue to grow in rich countries.”

The paper’s authors argue that economic growth is not necessary for social progress in already wealthy countries. Instead, human needs and well-being can be provided for by reducing inequality, ensuring living wages, shortening the work week to main full employment and guaranteeing universal access to public healthcare, education, transportation, energy, water and affordable housing.

Dr Jason Hickel said: “The policies we propose would actually improve the lives of the vast majority of people.

“If we share the yields of our economy more fairly, we can ensure good lives for all without plundering the planet for more.”

The authors highlight possible policy interventions across transport, industry, the building sector and in cities that would make it possible to achieve rapid decarbonization without relying so heavily on negative emissions technologies and productivity improvements.

These include shifting from private cars to public and non-motorised transportation, extending product lifespans by mandating warranties and regulating against planned obsolescence, shifting people to healthier plant-based diets and urban planning which would enable most people to access urban centres within 15 minutes.

Behind the article

The authors of the paper are: Jason Hickel, London School of Economics and Political Science and Autonomous University of Barcelona; Paul Brockway, University of Leeds; Giorgos Kallis, Autonomous University of Barcelona; Lorenz Keyßer, ETH Zurich; Manfred Lenzen, University of Sydney; Aljoša Slameršak, Autonomous University of Barcelona; Julia Steinberger, University of Lausanne; Diana Ürge-Vorsat, Central European University.