Sustainable growth is not scientifically credible

One of the regular objections to those who say that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth is that it is a political or ideological stance. We somehow want things to be simpler and greener and are only too happy to sacrifice a capitalist system that we disapprove of anyway.

This is a convenient but entirely unfounded accusation. It’s a matter of maths. Calculate the levels and rate of decarbonisation required to stabilise the climate, and there is simply no way it can be achieved in an economy that is growing.

I’ve written about these calculations before. They’re in Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, in nef’s report Growth Isn’t Possible, and (albeit inadvertently) McKinsey’s Carbon Productivity Challenge. Here’s another from Post Carbon Pathways.

In a paper that explores the Environmental Kuznets Curve, the rebound effect and decoupling, Samuel Alexander explains just what would need to happen to deliver sustainability if the global economy continues to grow.

Throughout the last century, developed countries grew at an average of 3% a year. Growing at this rate, their economies doubled in size every 23 years. If this exponential growth continues, then by 2080 the developed world’s economies will be 8 times larger than they are today.

If we continue with the prevailing development model, then we should expect developing countries to have ‘caught up’ by 2080 too. That means all ten billion people on the planet will be enjoying a developed world lifestyle. In which case, says Alexander, “the global economy would be around 80 times larger, in terms of GDP, than the size of the developed world’s aggregate economy today.”

Stop and look around at the state of the world after providing a consumerist lifestyle to just one billion people. We’re already pushing at the limits of what the atmosphere, the nitrogen cycle and the earth’s biodiversity can handle – can we really crank up economic activity by a factor of 80?

Of course, the idea is that efficiency runs ahead of growth so that we meet climate targets without having to decrease GDP – except that no country has ever achieved absolute decoupling of carbon emissions and GDP growth. As Jackson calculates, growth to 2050 would need to be accompanied by carbon efficiency gains of 11% a year – and the best anyone has ever done is 0.7%.

The maths is not on the side of growth. And yet, the enduring myth even among many environmentalists is that GDP growth can continue alongside decarbonisation. This, as Alexander says, “is not a scientifically credible position.”


12 Comments on “Sustainable growth is not scientifically credible”

  1. DevonChap February 18, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    Samuel Alexander is not scientifically credible.

  2. Andy Kingston-Smith February 18, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Further helpful comment on the incompatibility between the growth doctrine and sustainability…the maths simply don’t work out but our politicians refuse to acknowledge the scientific basis for this or the realities of human behaviour.

  3. m. February 18, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

    The article is one more, fully functional narrative. The viewpoint is a truism. It is amazing almost anybody does not emotionally grasp the occasion, what is to be done to force-feed the apparent emotional grasp of the approach to a global-human depression long term .

    From any angle the metrics to sustain a concept of growth are flawed. As flawed as the mention of jobs, the theoretics of economics. Say, in the way growth itself is calculated, what growth means monetized, how derivatives compare to the meager positive outcome of human toil. In the short-term future, in the suicidal bet on the long haul. There is no rational to the warped logic of today’s economics.

    Then there is human numbers, in absolute hampering survival(stimulating economical growth, easy markets, the consumer the product), to a philosophical extend, un-smart as to the future we envision for ourselves.

    The planet, the troposhere, our own human centric world, our personal micro-bulbs are untenable. The body of knowledge molded to grasp these confinements of logic is inspired by superficial utilitarianism of consenting then confused elites. The only sustainability they aspire at is their own dominance, and the way they go about it is as affirmative in it’s outcome.

    All arguments, no arguments, the burden of proof is none, growth and it’s negative, depressive, destructive outcome is evidenced empirically, is a theoretical moron, …is emotionally embedded into the human brain.

    To swich humanity from numbers games to quality of desire aspirations looks impossible. We are and will be for a short while to come a monoculture pervading the concept of bio-diversity.

    Allow for the following suggestion. Whatever our output does, production and consumption per capita globally, is nothing compared to the effect of one more(or less) person on the planet. That in itself is the major most pressing manifestation of growth. Consider: “cheap food produces low quality human”, “flawed theoretical concepts do not sustain the quest for qualitative life”

    Keep up the good work, understand, then act, it is a poor life to cocoon when reality is at stake, theirs(intrusive elite mongering) is yours generation’s outcome.

    Read more: … if this comment sounds to dense, machine-like, then sorry for that. The confusion of language generally is such…


    • Jeremy February 19, 2014 at 9:23 am #

      I’m not sure that returning to qualitative desires is impossible. The quantitative aspirations are learned. We didn’t used to think that way. All ancient wisdom is qualitative, and we can move beyond our current fixations. Skidelsky and Skidelsky’s book ‘How much is enough?’ is very good on that topic.

      • m. February 21, 2014 at 11:15 am #

        Thanks for your reference, will look into it.

  4. todaysguestis February 19, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    PwC Low Carbon Economy Index 2012: Too late for two degrees?

    The annual PwC Low Carbon Economy Index centres on one core statistic: the rate of change of global carbon intensity. This year we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2ºC warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, from now to 2050.

    We have passed a critical threshold – not once since 1950 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation in a single year, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.

    The 2011 rate of improvement in carbon intensity was 0.8%. Even doubling our rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with six degrees of warming. To give ourselves a more than 50% chance of avoiding two degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.

    …Business leaders have been asking for clarity in political ambition on climate change. Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2ºC, but 4ºC and, at our current rates, 6ºC.

    “Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6C of warming by the end of the century. ”

    • Jeremy February 19, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks, another example of doing the maths. Although it is interesting that their conclusion appears to be to prepare for that warmer world, rather can consider the heresy of slowing growth. But I’ll go and read it before assuming that.


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