Reality has Endorsed Degrowth

Reality has Endorsed Degrowth

By Chris Conrad '21

Two weeks ago, I went on a hike in Big Basin Redwoods State Park with my parents. The park covers a huge amount of land in the Santa Cruz mountains, and is filled with redwoods (hence the name).

One day later, the hottest temperature on Earth in the last hundred years was recorded in Death Valley.

Two days later, Big Basin was on fire.

All of it.

Two years ago (has it really been that long?), I called my parents from college during the Camp Fire – which was happening pretty far north of where we lived. That didn’t matter though – the air quality in the Bay Area was hazardous enough that they hadn’t left the house for a week – N95 masks were sold out.

Two years ago also marks the day that the IPCC told us something so hard to hear that hardly anyone has talked about it, even though it may be the single most important piece of information of the last decade.

Other parts of the report still made headlines – it warned that going beyond global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius threatened potentially catastrophic impacts to human society and told us that carbon emissions would have to fall by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 in order to have a 50% chance of staying within 1.5 degrees.

It is hard to overstate how challenging this will be. The IPCC itself wrote, “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Or, as Jason Hickel puts it, “It requires nothing less than a total and rapid reversal of our present direction as a civilization.”

If we fail, we are facing the single worst thing that has likely ever happened in human history. Limiting warming to 2 degrees (the old target) instead of 1.5 will kill 150 million people. For context, this is more than the total deaths from World War II, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Rwandan Genocide, the Black Death, and COVID-19.

Combined.

Oh and by the way. Those 150 million deaths? They’re only from air pollution. Climate-related deaths from heat waves, droughts, (un)natural disasters, wildfires (like the one that is still ravaging Big Basin), famine, none of them are counted.

Not to mention that climate change is deeply racial – the damage will fall mostly on postcolonial countries in the Global South (currently, 98% of the 400,000 deaths from climate change each year occur in the Global South).

Also, our blind faith in technology’s ability to save us has currently put us on track for nearly 4 degrees Celsius of warming by century’s end, not 2. And 4 degrees (almost 8 degrees Fahrenheit) makes 2 look quaint. Scientists project 4 degrees will cut our global ability to grow food in half, and 75% of the world’s population will experience lethal heatwaves for multiple weeks, every year. Southern Europe will look like the Sahara desert.

One of the world’s leading climate scientists estimates that Earth will only be able to support 4 billion people, and others warn that 4 degrees of warming will be incompatible with the existence of organized human society – an existential threat. Which I suppose makes sense – it’s hard to imagine any of our institutions surviving in a world where half the population has died.

Of course, even if we listen to the IPCC, it might not be enough. Some activists have pointed out that the IPCC targets only give us a 50% chance of staying within 1.5 degrees. Coin flips are a fine way to gamble small sums, but when human civilization is at stake, a 50% chance of avoiding catastrophe is an unacceptable gamble.

So, we really have to do everything we can to stay within 1.5 degrees. Practically any cost (even Bernie’s $16 trillion climate plan) is an order of magnitude lower than the raw, human toll of unstopped climate catastrophe.

And this is where the IPCC report comes in (again).

Remember how I mentioned that one part of the report didn’t get any attention?

It’s this: the IPCC has functionally endorsed degrowth – a planned reduction in the material and energy throughput of the economy – as a way to solve climate change.

The report outlines two sets of scenarios for staying within 1.5 degrees. One set of scenarios relies on mild emissions reductions paired with bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which entails planting tree plantations, chopping down the trees and burning them to generate electricity, and capturing the CO2 upon burning to store it underground. Basically, BECCS would remove carbon from the air (through photosynthesis) and generate energy too, resulting in net negative emissions.

Unfortunately, BECCS is a fantasy. The technology barely exists yet, and it seems unlikely it could be scaled up. Even if it could, the amount of BECCS required would be staggering – we’d have to convert a land area 2 to 3 times the size of India into tree plantations and build 17,000 energy facilities – whose land will be confiscated for the plantations? Moreover, because trees can’t grow anywhere, we’d have to convert two thirds of all arable land (which currently produces food) into tree plantations – likely meaning a famine as bad as the one a climate catastrophe would bring.

Fortunately, the other set of IPCC scenarios doesn’t rely on humanity collectively jumping off a cliff and hoping someone will build a net (BECCS) to catch us before we hit the ground. In this set of scenarios, global use of energy and materials decreases while societies rapidly switch to zero carbon infrastructure. Because most energy use is tied up in the production of consumable products, this basically means ending over-consumption. This would occur primarily in the global north, where we consume far more energy and materials than is sustainable – the global south’s level of consumption is well below the line for sustainability, so degrowth isn’t necessary there.

Which brings me to the undiscussed implication of the IPCC report: this would likely entail negative economic growth and falling GDP in the global north.

Why? The reason is simple – the best empirical evidence we have shows that GDP is tightly linked to energy use. When the economy grows, energy use goes up. When it doesn’t grow (or shrinks), energy use falls. That’s why the only year in the last 20 that global CO2 emissions have fallen is 2009 (and soon, 2020).

This linkage makes sense – GDP measures all the monetized final goods and services in the economy, and pretty much everything that’s sold relies on an energy foundation – manufacturing a car requires energy to power the factory, restaurants need power to operate, selling software requires energy to power computers, etc.

But wait. Why does energy use have to fall? Can’t we just switch to renewables and then keep growing energy use?

Unfortunately, no. Because economic growth compounds, a 3% growth rate doubles the size of the economy every 24 years. In other words, if we continue to pursue growth, the global economy will be twice as large by 2050, and energy use will likely have doubled with it.

The last few decades of economic growth have driven global energy use up astronomically, so even though renewable energy has grown, fossil fuel has grown by more, instead of declining. With economic growth we get energy addition instead of an energy transition.

That’s why energy use has to fall. Even with optimistic assumptions, supply constraints on key metals (lithium, neodymium, etc) mean that we can only bring renewables online to replace about 4-7% of existing energy use per year. The math works out such that a fall in energy use is basically the only thing compatible with achieving the IPCC’s emissions reductions targets – if we keep growing, we won’t be able to replace fossil fuels fast enough.

In other words, reality has endorsed degrowth. The world’s best scientists at the IPCC have warned us that if we want a shot at avoiding climate catastrophe, we need to fundamentally reorient the economy towards less material/energy use (or jump of the BECCS cliff and gamble with billions of lives).

Which brings me to the elephant in the room.

Isn’t this basically advocating for a permanent recession (even if it saves billions of lives)?

No. I’d argue that recessions are unplanned economic shocks that reduce people’s wellbeing – people lose their jobs (and in the US, healthcare), face eviction, loss of income, and more. Degrowth is a planned reduction in the material/energy throughput of the economy that seeks to maximize wellbeing, even as we deliberately produce and consume less.

Put simply, degrowth posits that we can increase human wellbeing while reducing economic activity. We already know this is possible – Europe has about half the GDP per capita of the US, but scores much better than the US on practically every social metric – self reported happiness, education, life expectancy, the list goes on. Costa Rica has a fifth the GDP of the US and better life expectancy. The US in 1970 was statistically happier than it is today, despite the economy being more than twice as large now.

So how do we do this? How can we decouple wellbeing from GDP?

Degrowth’s academic arm has a lot of answers to this question. Legislate an end to planned obsolescence – if products last 4 times as long, consumption will fall 75%. Restrict advertising, so people aren’t pushed to buy stuff they don’t need. Tax luxury consumption (which has an outsized ecological impact) more heavily. Set decreasing caps on material and energy use to ensure we hit IPCC targets. End fossil fuel subsidies, place moratoriums on new fossil fuel projects, and fund massive public investments in renewables.

This would deal with material and energy use (and therefore, climate change), but how do we improve wellbeing while pursuing degrowth?

Provide a federal job guarantee so anyone can find a job that pays them a living wage (this would also permanently end unemployment and pressure the private sector to pay workers fairly). Introduce work-sharing and a shorter working week so that a reduction in the total number of jobs doesn’t leave anyone unemployed (which would also boost wellbeing – after all, who wouldn’t like a permanent 3 day weekend).

Introduce steeply progressive taxes on the wealthy to create a more fair and equal distribution (which a lot of empirical research has found boosts wellbeing). Plus, the revenue could be used to fund universal public services – healthcare, education, housing, etc – which empirical research has found to be the single best way to boost wellbeing. One study found that it only costs $10,000 per person to get the highest levels of life expectancy, education, nutrition, employment, and life satisfaction – the US private healthcare system sucks up $9,500 per person each year.

In other words, it costs less than the average global GDP per capita ($11,300) to give everyone access to the ingredients for a decent life – hardly the “voluntary impoverishment” that degrowth’s opponents misconstrue it as. Indeed, with degrowth, society would be more equal, and we’d have the freedom to spend our time doing what really matters to us (time with friends and family, hobbies, etc) instead of being slaves to a 40 hour work week. With universal public services, we’d be provided for – we’d work less, and enjoy life more.

These proposals may seem radical. I’d suggest the opposite – what’s radical is the idea that continuing GDP growth is more important than saving 150 million-4 billion people from climate catastrophe.

People tell me degrowth is politically impossible. Unfortunately for them, scientific reality does not care about political feasibility. Reality has endorsed degrowth. Now it’s up to us to make it political reality.

One final note. Big Basin may have caught fire, but the redwoods are still standing. In some way, this reminds me that although we may throw ourselves (and countless other species) into the void within the century, nature will likely endure without us. Earth doesn’t need us – we need it.

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