Green growth or Degrowth strategies? We'll need both!
Is the COVID-19 crisis good for the fight against climate change?
The answer to this question is extremely closely linked to the question -are you a green growth ‘believer’ or not?-. Otherwise put, if you believed that before 2020 we could have been on the right track towards a solution. The COVID-19 crisis is such a sudden break from business as usual, that if you thought that we had to push the peddle forward, than by definition, you don’t think the COVID-19 crisis does the world any service.
As the majority of climate activists and analysts believe wholeheartedly in green growth, they also deplore the climate crisis in equal measure.
Still, voicing an opinion that is echoed by a large majority in society is in itself not a guarantee for being it being correct (albeit, neither is the opposite).
The reality is, unfortunately more complex than this. As for green growth, it has a problem. It propones that we can continue to grow and develop economically, while at the same time emitting less greenhouse gases. For this to be a valid theory, this principle has to (1) be proven true on a global scale, (2) has to produce an absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (not just a slower increase) and (3) has to reduce emissions at a high enough rate (-7.5%/year). Unfortunately for our planet, the answers to these questions is 3x “NO”.
On the contrary, if there is anything that shows an absolute incredible correlation with GHG emissions, it’s not the amount of renewable energy, but the total world economic output. Degrowth proponents have been pointing out for years that historically the only meaningful declines in greenhouse gas emissions in known history have been caused by times of economic downturn/crisis. Indeed, before 2020, the last time there was a reduction in GHG emissions, was during the 2008 financial crisis. Today’s COVID-19 crisis is no different. The IEA very recently predicted that GHG emissions are expected to drop 8% (!) in 2020. At the start of April 2020, even a temporary decrease of 17% of global daily emissions have been recorded. If the current expectations for 2020 would materialize, it would be the first time ever that we, as a global community, successfully reduce our annual GHG emissions at a rate that is in line with the target of limiting warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.
Meanwhile, however, instead of cheering, many governmental and environmental organizations stress that this is not the reduction they had been waiting for…
That’s a bit like a football team filled with star players and a star coach that has promised to win the championship by playing beautiful football. However, in reality it turns out that, the team loses their games all the time. One day, the club needs to react to the continuous streak of lost matches and they hire a new coach. The new coach benches the majority of star players and has the team win a match for a first time this season. Instead of cheering, the sacked and benched star coach and players complain that the match wasn’t won by playing beautifully and that one match doesn’t make a season.
While that final accolade might be true and important, not learning from this first ever win, would be a sign of an extreme willingness to ignore the uncomfortable truth.
The reality is that, reducing GHG emissions with 7,5%/year or more while growing economically is near to, if not, completely impossible.
Green growth proponents have unsuccessfully promised meaningful GHG reductions for years.
Now that another force shows it can produce these kinds of reductions in a heartbeat, green growth proponents complain it is the ‘wrong kind’…
Still, hard-line degrowthers equally don’t hold a monopoly on the truth. The reality is that both a maximum increase in renewable energy as well as the maximum possible reduction in consumption will be needed to fight climate change.
Below you can find 2 graphic representations that illustrate this in detail. On the X-axis you can go to the global average (energetic) growth rate you would want (consumption) and see what kind of growth rates you would need from the most important renewables for it to be compatible with fighting climate change with a minimum of effectiveness.
If you claim to adhere to the Paris Agreement as well as want to stick to a consumption growth rate of for example 3%, you are admitting that you are counting on a more than 70-fold renewable energy increase to supply your needs. Similarly, even a -1% shrink of demand achieved every year, would still require an almost 30-fold increase in renewable energy from now to 2050
So the road ahead is tough and steep. And the only way to still have a chance of getting there in time, everybody needs to put his or her taboos aside. Only if we increase our renewable energy supply as fast as we possibly can and combine it with a reduction in consumption as fast as humanly possible, can we present our children with a future that still does honor to its meaning.