Have we hit "peak" Green Growth

Newsletter #13

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Today’s newsletter looks at limits to green growth, and the case for degrowth.

This is a fundamental, yet surprisingly invisible debate.

I first heard the term degrowth back in 2007, at that time I viewed it as a fringe ideology championed by a few French thinkers, led by Serge Latouche. I bought a few issues of their magazine "Decroissance". It was always an interesting, thought-provoking but rather angry space. Hardly an alternative to business as usual.

Fast forward to 2021, and we have a global context that is more fertile for the degrowth debate. One that is a lot more concerned about equity, social welfare, compassion and above all, an escalating sense that current approaches are insufficient.

Highlights from Green and Sustainable Finance

A recent paper in Nature Communications caught my attention with the following title: “1.5 °C degrowth scenarios suggest the need for new mitigation pathways”.

It points out that the IPCC’s 1.5C scenarios rely heavily on technological change while assuming continued growth in GDP and fail to consider degrowth scenarios where economic output declines due to stringent climate mitigaton.

This is an interesting “blind spot” in our assumptions about green growth.

None of the 222 scenarios in the IPCC SR1.5 and none of the shared socioeconomic pathways projects a declining GDP trajectory.

Interestingly, empirical evidence corroborates the degrowth hypothesis that there is a stronger than commonly recognised relationship between the growth in GDP and energy material and fossil fuel use. Consequently, measures to drastically reduce the latter would also reduce GDP growth.

A few takeaways to ponder:

👉 There’s a possibility that a 100% renewable energy economy could be a smaller one in GDP terms.

👉 Analysis of 1.5C degrowth scenarios shows that these are relatively low-risk pathways as they don’t rely heavily on negative emissions technologies and carbon capture and storage, plus they assume a low speed and scale of renewable energy replacing fossil fuels.

👉 The downside is that such degrowth scenarios have low socio-political feasibility as they require radical social change.

But this could change. Take geo-engineering for example. Back in 2001, when the IPCC Third Assessment report was released, geo-engineering was considered weird and taboo. By the time the Fifth Assessment came out in 2013/14, this was no longer the case.

I interviewed IPCC author Heleen de Coninck on this back in 2018.

What’s interesting is that in AR3, the definition of geo-engineering included carbon capture and storage (CCS) as well as some very exotic solar radiation management options. Then during the development of AR4 there was a Special Report on CCS. After that, CCS was excluded from the geo-engineering group of options and was normalized into  mitigation options, and discussed as such in the AR4 and AR5.

Nobody wanted to talk about it back then, as the hope was that energy efficiency and renewables could by themselves prevent dangerous climate change. Now it’s almost completely normalized and legitimized.

As we get closer to climate limits, fewer and fewer things are categorized as geo-engineering and are instead categorized as ‘normal’ in the mitigation space or in a separate category in the case of solar radiation management, which is neither mitigation nor adaptation.

So could we see a similar “normalization” of degrowth in future IPCC assessments?

Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast episode that digs deeper into Green Growth vs Degrowth.

Further 📖 “Feasible Alternatives to Green Growth” Nature Sustainability, March 2020.

The future of business, according to under 25’s

A group of masters students from Sciences Po made a short video of their report on the ideal business of the future. The report was based on a survey of almost 400 young adults from 35 countries. This is the generation that is working hard to make their vision of a values-based economy a reality, and they deserve our full attention.

I asked Marielle Brunelle, who was part of the group that ran the survey, what their findings revealed about attitudes towards degrowth among younger generations.

👉 Only 2% of all respondents, when asked what they think when they hear the word "sustainability", check that they think of "degrowth". Only 23% of all 365 survey respondents, however, checked that they think of "economic growth".

👉 Regarding age, the highest to lowest "degrowth" responses came overwhelmingly from 21-25 year olds. The highest to lowest "economic growth" responses came from 15-20 year olds.

From and beyond the podcast

Our latest 🎧 was inspired by the dramatic eviction of Emmanuel Faber from Danone as both CEO and Chairman. I was joined by Louise Kjellerup Roper and Mark Desjardine for a lively discussion on hedge fund activism and Danone that revealed some uncomfortable truths about sustainability and gender playing a role in attracting such attacks.

There are so many great takeaways from the conversation, not least on what needs to happen to secure a safe space for sustainable business to thrive in the long-term. 

If you missed this episode, you can catch up here.

Upcoming episodes: How to acquire a sustainability mindset, with Lisen Schultz from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

🗓️ In late 2021, I plan to expand my offerings to include paid content that lets us dive deeper into these issues. Paid subscribers will receive one or two well-researched pieces per month on big ideas that are headed from fringe to mainstream.

So if you have feedback on areas that you’d like covered, just hit reply.

If you're enjoying the free edition, please spread the word so we can grow the community faster.

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Until next time,

Denise