Rethink the economy to tackle climate crisis

Research into global climate models by leading international academics shows that current economic policies are in danger of leading nations away from emission and global warming targets.

Existing growth-driven economic scenarios rely heavily on unproven levels of energy efficiency improvements, combined with widespread global use of negative emissions technologies (NETs), which are as-yet untested on a commercial scale.

An article published in Nature Energy calls instead for diversification in these existing models. Co-authored by Dr Paul Brockway of the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds and lead author Jason Hickel, from the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, the paper highlights the need to consider alternative, post-growth scenarios in order to meet climate and emissions obligations set by the Paris Agreement.

Post-growth policies move away from GDP growth and focus instead on provisioning for human needs and well-being.

Dr Paul Brockway, School of Earth and Environment

Growth-driven economic scenarios assume that nations will continue to raise their gross domestic product (GDP) by increasing the production of goods and services in order to progress economically and socially.

Higher GDP in the past has created an increase in the demand for energy and an inevitable rise in carbon emissions. Continuing on that path would threaten the goal of the Paris Agreement, which requires a significant reduction in carbon emissions, to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Therefore, to reconcile economic growth with energy demand and emissions, nations rely on models with unproven levels of energy efficiency and speculative future negative emissions technologies with unproven outcomes.

For example, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one method that is due to be increased in usage in the coming decades to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. However, this requires massive amounts of agricultural land and water to produce the biofuels needed, which will be taken away from food production. 

Other strategies – such as direct air carbon capture and storage – consume massive amounts of electricity, creating difficulties in decarbonising energy supply. 

Alternative scenarios

New research shows that alternative scenarios need to be considered in order to deliver on existing targets.  

There is now a growing call for high-income nations to pursue post-growth economic models instead, which take away the focus on increasing GDP and instead look to prioritise human needs and an improved standard of living.  

Post-growth policies maintain a stable economy and support the social and societal needs of the population without economic growth. As an example, Spain outperforms the USA in certain key social indicators such as life expectancy despite having 55% less GDP per capita. 

Policy interventions are needed in areas such as transportation, industry, agriculture, construction and city planning. These include extending product warranties, rights to repair, minimising food waste, reducing reliance on industrial farming methods, promoting maintenance over new construction and improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings. 

Urgent rethink

Dr Brockway said: “Existing models should diversify and include post-growth economic scenarios, which could achieve the rapid energy and emissions reductions we seek, but without relying on unproven ‘technofixes’. Post-growth policies move away from GDP growth and focus instead on provisioning for human needs and well-being, such as by reducing inequality, ensuring living wages, shortening the working week to maintain full employment, and guaranteeing universal access to public healthcare, education, transportation, energy, water and affordable housing.”

Recent modelling of post-growth scenarios shows that policy interventions could bring annual global final energy demand from current levels of 400 Exajoules (EJ), to as low as 150 EJ in 2050. This is compared 245 EJ as modelled in the Low Energy Demand decarbonisation scenario highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Dr Brockway said: "Current, growth-driven pathways may not take us to Paris, and as a result, we urgently need to include post-growth economic scenarios. By raising this topic, we aim to provoke debate amongst the public and practitioners worldwide on this important issue." 

Dr Jason Hickel said: "The scientific evidence is clear: growthism makes climate mitigation much more difficult. If we want to have a shot at meeting the Paris climate goals, rich nations need to abandon growth as an objective and adopt post-growth policies." 

Further information

Urgent need for post-growth climate mitigation scenarios is published in Nature Energy

Picture: Adobe Stock

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