Climate change – a tale of economic growth

Helene Dyrhauge |

The photo of Australians sticking their heads in the sand to protest against Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s lack of commitment to climate change came just a few days after the US and China agreed to reduce their emissions and start tackling climate change. The USA has promised to reduce its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025 across the economy. Whilst China has promised stop increasing its CO2 emissions after 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030[i]. All three countries are known to be climate sceptics, or perhaps more concerned about their economy than environmental protection. Although the US and Chinese commitments are rather weak compared to the EU’s long historical commitment to climate change, it is good to see these big polluters starting to take responsibility – better late than never or maybe it is too late?

Earth overshoot day is moving in the wrong direction. In 2000 Earth overshoot day occurred in October and in 2014 the date was 19 August, which indicates an increased overconsumption as we humans demand more resources than Earth can reproduce within a year. In other words, Earth cannot reproduce the natural resources we require to facilitate our current living standards. We do not live in a science fiction world, where we have the technology to colonise other parts of the universe, as ‘Battlestar Gallactica’ and ‘Doctor Who’ would like to tell us, instead we are closer to the science fiction portrayed in ‘The Sheep Look up’ and ‘The Day after Tomorrow’. Overall, we need to find a way of living within our means. The past few years’ economic crisis discourse has told us austerity is necessary, where is environmental austerity?

In October, the EU, which traditionally has been seen as an environmental leader, finally decided on new climate and energy targets for 2030.

“The domestic 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target of at least 40% compared to 1990 together with the other main building blocks of the 2030 policy framework for climate and energy, as proposed by the European Commission in January 2014. This 2030 policy framework aims to make the European Union’s economy and energy system more competitive, secure and sustainable and also sets a target of at least 27% for renewable energy and energy savings by 2030”.[ii]

However, it took more than six months for the member states to reach a decision which is less ambitious than the Commission’s initial proposal. The delay was due to differences between member states’ commitment to renewable energies and climate change in general. Whilst some head of governments claim this is a strong commitment and place the EU in a good position for the COP21 negotiations in Paris in spring 2015, some renewable energy companies have voiced their disappointment with the result. Obviously these companies see stronger climate change targets as a business opportunity, but it is interesting that business in addition to the usual environmental NGOs argue for more commitment to renewable energies and emission reductions.

The climate change debate is increasingly focusing on ‘carbon neutral economy’, ‘energy security’, ‘competitive and sustainable economy’, which reflects ecological modernisation, where technology and industry become the main driver for environmental protection and addressing climate change. Other approaches to the climate change debate, for example varieties of green capitalism[iii], challenge the established economic discourse, but these approaches have been marginalised by the dominant economic crisis debate about ‘austerity’ or ‘kick-starting the economy’. Overall, policy-makers at all levels should start questioning the current climate change paradigm and investigate alternative approaches. In short, solving the climate crisis requires a ‘green revolution’ which includes returning to the oft-cited Brundtland report[iv]:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

1. the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and

2. the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs

Where is the concepts of needs and limitations in the current climate debate? The climate debate and commitment by politicians at all levels do not address the problem of how Earth’s resources are used and by whom. Intra- and inter-generational justice requires personal and collective sacrifices to our living standards. Whilst intra-generational justice is easier to comprehend as it focuses on the present and the re-distribution of resources for example within a country and between countries, by comparison the concept of future generations is difficult to address as human optimism seems to prevail and no-one  has a magic crystal ball to say for certain what will happen tomorrow. However, Meadows et al (1972) report explained the connectivity and consequences of our actions for the environment and the Earth’s resources. Interestingly, the updates in 2005 and 2011 showed more environmental damage and economic polarisation than the 1972 book had initially predicted[v].

The fundamental climate and environmental question politicians, businesses and individuals should focus on is “how can we all live on our shared Earth within our means, and so there will be resources for our grandchildren?” – Actually it is basic accounting, you should not spend more than you have and you should save for rainy days! Until everyone are willing to make sacrifices we will not be able to solve the climate crisis and the imagined days of apocalypse seen in Hollywood films and bestselling books will one day become real.

[iii] Tienhaara, K (2014). ”Varieties of green capitalism: economy and environment in the wake of the global financial crisis” Environmental Politics 23(2) pp 187-204

[iv] UN (1987). ”Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future” chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development

[v] Meadows et al (1972) “The Limits to Growth” – For a summary of arguments “Last Call” documentary film.