Can Economic Growth Stop Climate Change?

Despite the scientific consensus on the urgent need to address the causes of climate change, a stubborn attachment to economic growth by policymakers threatens to disrupt any effective response to the growing environmental crisis. Interim updates in the run up to December’s major Climate Conference in Copenhagen revealed that emissions and temperatures are accelerating more rapidly than expected — leading many to ask why governments and political leaders are doing so little to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change.

This long-standing gulf between government rhetoric and action was preoccupying scientists attending the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in the Danish capital during March, and many of these specialists have since engaged in activism of a kind not seen since the period of nuclear proliferation during the 1950s and 1960s. Acknowledging the failure of governments to date, experts at the meeting urged world leaders to resist the influence of vested interests and act decisively to avert a series of devastating ecological and social consequences.

Whilst Nicholas Stern, one of the UK’s leading climate change scientists and author of the Stern report, berated the British government’s failure to pursue strong and effective policies, other outspoken and prominent scientists took to the street in protest. Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), joined more than 1,000 campaigners in Coventry (UK) as part of a Climate Change Day of Action in March. Demonstrators similarly voiced concerns over government inaction at the Put People First and Climate Camp protests during the G20 Summit in London. Dr. Hansen, like many in the climate change movement, believes that our politicians are failing the planet, and that direct action through protests is now crucial in order to combat heavy lobbying from the business sector that has prevented the necessary legislative interventions.

What these scientists-cum-activists now faced is the same barrier to progress that campaigners have expressed for decades: a stubborn adherence to economic growth and corporate welfare by policymakers. So entrenched is the attachment to continually expanding the economy that Gordon Brown, acting as ‘chancellor’ of the G20 Summit, made the resumption of global economic growth a key target for the meeting. Ministers hope that the trillion dollar stimulus that was agreed upon will go a long way to re-establishing economic ‘normality’. More recently, the same ministers pledged billions to the world’s lender of last resort — the IMF, to provide additional debt-based credit to stimulate growth around the world. The underlying rationale behind these policies is that governments must preserve economic growth at all costs, and the best way to safeguard growth is by protecting those businesses that generate the most income.

Profiting from Climate Change

The danger of continuing such a ‘growth at all costs’ approach is amplified when only financially profitable solutions to the climate crisis are pursued by governments. In most industrialized countries the largest and most influential businesses are oil corporations and car manufacturers that wield significant lobbying power over governments, and a responsibility to their shareholders before any commitment to reduce CO2 emissions. Given both the overriding commitment by corporations to profit and a dependency by the population on the consumption of oil, there is little incentive for these industries to encourage people to consume less fossil fuel. As one example, car manufactures have traditionally prioritized speed and aesthetics over efficiency, and some of the most fuel efficient cars available today are less economical in fuel use than those available over two decades ago — particularly in the US. Whilst this approach has contributed to gross domestic product (GDP) and generated huge incomes for the car industry, the average ‘miles per gallon’ usage in US cars is currently less than it was in the 1908 model T Ford.

A spiraling level of economic and financial competition between nations is also stifling effective agreement and action on emission reductions, whilst continuing to aggravate the often-tense relationship between countries in the Global North and South. Given the competitive nature of the global economy, most governments resist enacting tough legislation to curb emissions in the fear of losing their competitive financial edge. They prefer instead to use less effective market-based mechanisms that will facilitate a continued prioritization of economic growth.

Green taxes on driving cars or flying in airplanes discriminate against the poor and are only half measures compared to stricter legislation, such as outright bans on cars in cities or domestic flights. Despite being a key mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, setting an agreed ‘cap’ on emission levels and then allowing some companies to ‘trade’ their allowances to other firms for profit doesn’t reduce emissions as effectively as simply legislating for larger reductions. Whilst strict legislation would force corporations to innovate greener technology, ‘Cap and Trade’ results in incremental and insufficient adjustments to emissions with a view to creating new markets and expanding profits. Carbon offsets are an increasingly popular way of reducing emissions, and present yet another business opportunity that contributes to GDP. Palliative measures such as planting trees or purchasing offsets sold by ‘greener industries’, while at the same time pursuing business as usual, does little to mitigate the unsustainable and damaging activities that emit greenhouse gases in the first place.

An understanding of how business opportunity has trumped effective policy can be drawn from a host of other market friendly solutions to global warming. Bio-fuel expansion accelerates climate change through increased deforestation, the destruction of ecosystems, peat drainage, and an increasing use of nitrate fertilizers. Policies that encourage ‘clean coal’ production or carbon capture and storage (CCS) help governments to justify the continued building of coal plants, thereby appealing to the fossil fuel lobby and obfuscating the deeper issues. And the nuclear lobby is using climate change to revive their flagging industry despite serious concerns over hazardous wastes, a lengthy development process, and clear evidence of its marginal capacity to reduce emissions.

Ultimately, none of these options addresses our over-reliance on fossil fuels, the problems with continued industrial expansion, or the need for more sustainable modes living and working. Instead of limiting advertising, restricting the overuse of pollutants or legislating for deeper cuts in emissions in key polluting industries, governments and corporations have adopted a strategy that leaves the average citizen feeling responsible for solving the climate crisis themselves.

The tendency of governments to trust business models and not strong legislation is skillfully masked by shifting guilt and responsibility onto ‘consumers’, and much of the public debate still remains focused around recycling, changing light bulbs and re-using carrier bags. By reducing their carbon footprints and making choices that are more responsible in of lifestyle and consumption habits, people in the developed world may try to live more sustainable lives. Whilst engagement by the public is crucial and personal adjustments are necessary, consumer measures are limited in their effectiveness and generally only possible in the richest countries.

Moreover, the ideal of ‘consumer choice’ in goods and services is predicated on the continued consumption of natural resources, the pollution from which is one of the main drivers of climate change. By any assessment, it would take decades for consumer preferences to re-orient the current model of production and consumption that remains driven by the need to increase profit levels and share prices endlessly.

A more suitable strategy would be for governments to enact legislation targeting the source of emissions, for example by regulating the exploitation of natural resources by industrial producers, including the full environmental costs of production into the price of goods, and discouraging the all-pervading consumer culture that is increasingly the focus of life, even in the developing world. These and similar measures would shift the responsibility away from the end ‘consumer’ who is presently encouraged to continue over-consuming, albeit more conscientiously.

Revisiting the Limits of Growth

Endless economic growth is clearly unsustainable as GDP can only increase through the continued production and consumption of the world’s resources. This paradigm, despite its application to almost all aspects of international and domestic policies, is inherently flawed since we only have finite resources and a limited capacity to absorb emissions. As the oft-quoted UK Interdependence report by the New Economics Foundation estimated, if all countries consumed as much as the US per capita, we would require over five planets worth of resources to survive.

The relentless process of economic expansion largely relies on inputs from nature, and consequently ravages the environment whilst releasing huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. A recent report by the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK summarized the conflict between growth and the environment, stating; “In the last quarter of a century the global economy has doubled, while an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded. Global carbon emissions have risen by 40% since 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol ‘base year’). Significant scarcity in key resources — such as oil — may be less than a decade away.”

Writing previously in the New Scientist, Tim Jackson, the report’s main author, equated emissions rates to consumption rates and calculated that, if we factor in moderate economic growth, the necessary cuts in emissions will require an 11-fold reduction in the current European average consumption rate. Yet any coherent plan, requisite technology or financing to achieve this universal decarbonization of the world’s economy is still far from being realized.

There are wider social issues that accompany an entirely growth-based approach to economic development. For example, numerous studies have demonstrated that economic growth is not an adequate measure of wellbeing or happiness. As a society, despite a phenomenal increase in material wealth, we are no happier now than we were in the 1970s. If fairly distributed, the proceeds from growth can be important, particularly in the developing world where it can significantly enhance well-being by helping to secure basic human needs. But once these needs have been met, as is largely the case in rich countries, increases in wealth cease to contribute significantly to well-being.

Even as a means of poverty reduction, economic growth is extremely inefficient and uneven in its benefits. The proceeds of growth are not distributed fairly enough to justify an adherence to the ‘trickle down’ theory, and there is no coherent global welfare system to compensate the increasing numbers of ‘losers’ in the global market system. Not only has inequality in wealthier countries increased in recent decades, but levels of inequality between countries also continue to rise. The minimal quantities of aid redistributed by donor countries to compensate those who cannot afford to pay market prices for their essential goods and services is also fast dwindling, as donor countries have fewer resources to spare in the wake of the worsening global financial crisis.

The poor in the developing world also suffer disproportionately from the ‘externalities of growth.’ As demand for more goods continues to rise, and resources are extracted and then consumed as products — often many thousands of miles away — various hazardous by-products are created along the way. These include toxic chemicals used by the extractive industries, chemical fertilizers used by agri-business, and carbon emissions from machinery and transport.

Not only can poorer countries simply not afford to address many of the environmental consequences of this process, they will often be the first to be threatened by the consequences of climate change as it affects agricultural production. Up to 85 percent of the population in some of the poorest countries depend directly on crops, livestock, fisheries or forests for their daily income or sustenance, and estimates suggest that crop yields could reduce by a third in many poorer countries by 2050 as a direct result of global warming. Sub-Saharan Africa, the smallest contributor to CO2 emissions, will be the hardest hit.

There is a growing acknowledgment amongst scientists and campaigners that the only way out of the quagmire of growth is an immediate shift in policy to favor public and environmental interests over those of big business and the profit imperative. But it is also necessary to achieve a wider appreciation of how the pursuit of economic growth accelerates global warming and mitigates prevention — a basic fact that should play a key role in climate change campaigns. Without greater public awareness of the political and ideological obstructions to action, governments are likely to continue reinventing the same competitive, growth-centric policies that are the root cause of the climate crises.

Only public engagement can finally urge governments to act more decisively on climate change, although this involvement must go beyond individual efforts to recycle waste, buy responsibly or reduce carbon footprints. The media has already well documented the role of non-violent protests in reshaping public opinion and policy, and the recent heavy-handed approach by the UK government to squash the G20 protests signals a growing concern amongst policymakers of how informed citizens can quickly damage their political reputation. It is time to step up efforts to educate, engage and mobilize world opinion on the real causes and solutions to climate change, enabling the global public to take the lead in forcing governments to act.

Rajesh Makwana is an activist and writer at Share the World's Resources (STWR), a London-based civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at Read other articles by Rajesh, or visit Rajesh's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on May 28th, 2009 at 11:23am #

    The danger of continuing such a ‘growth at all costs’ approach is amplified when only financially profitable solutions to the climate crisis are pursued by governments.

    Up to 85 percent of the population in some of the poorest countries depend directly on crops, livestock, fisheries or forests for their daily income or sustenance, and estimates suggest that crop yields could reduce by a third in many poorer countries by 2050 as a direct result of global warming. Sub-Saharan Africa, the smallest contributor to CO2 emissions, will be the hardest hit.

    Rajesh you wrote the truth. Crop yields could reduce by a third in many poorer countries by 2050 and that could be a little more than a third and sooner than 2050 and not just in poorer countries. It is somewhat slow nature of the beast but starting to add up. I already see the changes where I live in the Southeastern United States changes not good for crops and the best I can understand California is in a bit of trouble big trouble first. The same is true for Australia, Northern China some parts of India today. The danger of continuing such a ‘growth at all costs’ approach is amplified when only financially profitable solutions to the climate crisis are pursued by governments.

  2. Don Hawkins said on May 28th, 2009 at 12:36pm #

    World carbon emissions must start to decline in only six years if humanity is to stand a chance of preventing dangerous global warming, a group of 20 Nobel prize-winning scientists, economists and writers declared today. Times

    I’ll bet Rush or Hannity or Glenn Beck will have a little to say about this. I think it’s called newspeak. There is another old saying, “transcend the bullshit”.

  3. Don Hawkins said on May 28th, 2009 at 1:53pm #

    Is World carbon emissions going to start to decline in six years with cap and trade? No it sure isn’t. James Hansen wrote awhile back think of this as kind of a war and that is what it will take. What we see now is mind boggling in it’s total lack of reason, knowledge, good sense, common sense and reality.

    Prince Charles, a long-term environmentalist, said that while global warming is set to cause “the extinction of millions of species and organisms”, the majority of people are not willing to take action to prevent temperatures rising.

    Addressing the Nobel Laureates Symposium at St James’s Palace in London, he said: “I don’t know about your own experience, but it seems to me that whilst there is now only a mercifully small (if vociferous) number of people who do not accept the science of climate change and who should know better, there are still a great many who fail to recognise the real urgency of the situation. Telegraph

    Nobel scientists most scientists not on the payroll of those mercifully small (if vociferous) number of people who do not accept the science of climate change seem to asking for help. So how can we the average person help. We outnumber these mercifully small (if vociferous) number of people by about 300 to .01. I have to admit they are good at getting out there truth better known as bullshit. The truth is getting out just to slow. Six years is tuff but can be done with a Herculean effort total focus kind of like the last World war. Did they not nationalize bank’s much of the means of production to fight that war. This time we fight a war without the destruction we work together with the truth the knowledge and it’s got to be better than what we see now called insanity. You know doing the same thing over and thinking we will get a different result. I don’t think these mercifully small (if vociferous) number of people even think that they just don’t care as long as they can go out in style, style give me a break. These mercifully small (if vociferous) number of people have money and lies, bullshit lot’s of bullshit. Two million to start calm at peace Capital one voice. Al Gore are you out there those commercials don’t seem to be working. Anybody how do we do this?

  4. Max Shields said on May 28th, 2009 at 3:07pm #

    Good piece. We need more on this topic on DV. Economic limits to growth is what has been called “uneconomic growth” by Herman Daly who proposes a “steady state economy” which is truly sustainable. He is very clear about what he calls sustainable and I believe Richard Heinberg’s book “The Party is Over” talks about it.

    30 years ago a book called the Limits to Growth came out and was recently updated, by Donnella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. Excellent book and describes exactly what is meant by the hazards of such a pathological system and the policies that keep it going.

    There is a twist to all this and Heinberg discusses it from a systemic perspective with regard to energy (fossile) peaks. That we keep dodging the “bullet” because we reduce our consumption, as we are somewhat now with the economic depression. These moments forestall the inevitable collapse (capitalist like to think this means capitalism is “resiliant” which is a pure fantasy).

    But what we have working against this pathology is thermodynamics (which has never been overcome) and expotentiality of the problem. Once you hit a certain point, it is impossible to simply reduce and solve the problem. The problem is beyond human resolution for the most part. It will resolve itself through various (and frequently rationalized and denied) events that will push back on human existence as it is now playing out.

  5. Don Hawkins said on May 28th, 2009 at 6:59pm #

    One day man will connect his apparatus to the very wheelwork of the universe […] and the very forces that motivate the planets in their orbits and cause them to rotate will rotate his own machinery.”
    —Nikola Tesla

    A few years down the road if we can get down the road.

  6. Don Hawkins said on May 29th, 2009 at 6:22am #

    sent this to CNBC this morning.


    So we in the greatest nation on Earth don’t want to drive small cars. Do you hear that wait there it is again that laughter off in the distance. Where are we all now?

    The middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. ”

    We are not there want to bet on that? We all today are stopped on the road in a big truck and up ahead is a fork in the road the sign points to one road called the low road and also points to the other the high road. I wonder the low road or superstition the high road or knowledge. From what I understand six years and counting if we take the high road today. It’s going to be tuff to say the least but not boring. I have noticed some of the people I see on CNBC seem to be on the high road already so that’s what they call it. So far we have not made up our mind on the way to turn when do you think we should do that? Climate change will effect poorer countries first oops that means us. We are not a poor country want to bet on that.

    One day man will connect his apparatus to the very wheelwork of the universe […] and the very forces that motivate the planets in their orbits and cause them to rotate will rotate his own machinery.”
    —Nikola Tesla

    A few years down the road if we can get down the road. So that’s what they call it.


    Mr. President, policy makers, business leaders do any of you read DV? Mr. President do you have that people of Earth speech ready? Because many of us out here who don’t live in the middle ground and use something called imagination and knowledge are very sure you will be giving that speech one way or the other. Kind of easy to see as the last time I checked we have telescopes now and computers. Take the high road go for it the light not shadows science not superstition knowledge not fear. What do we have to lose it’s called Earth third planet from the Sun a miracle of the known Universe. Think man think.

  7. Don Hawkins said on May 30th, 2009 at 6:37am #

    LONDON (May 29) — The first comprehensive
    report into the human cost of climate
    change warns the world is in the
    throes of a “silent crisis” that is killing
    300,000 people each year.
    More than 300 million people are already
    seriously affected by the gradual warming
    of the earth and that number is set to double
    by 2030, the report from the Global Humanitarian
    Forum warns.
    “For the first time we are trying to get the
    world’s attention to the fact that climate
    change is not something waiting to happen.
    It is impacting seriously the lives of many
    people around the world,” the forum’s president,
    former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
    Annan, told CNN.

    Annan called on Member States to reach a
    “global, effective, fair and binding” outcome
    on climate change, as the report
    warned that the talks could “well be the last
    chance for avoiding global catastrophe.” CNN

    Last chance to for avoiding global catastrophe well that doesn’t sound good. A little secret this report is being nice this little problem moving faster and effects gaining speed. Will cap and trade to the trick. No it sure will not. Think of this as kind of a war calm at peace one voice and get some boots. This problem is a third World problem and not going to happen in the States afraid not already started. I think that whole third World thinking is a little out of date anyway as the last time I checked America the greatest nation on Earth is broke. We do have a AAA rating still and that is called illusion. If you live in California only harder then harder. Cap and trade RRRRIGHT.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 30th, 2009 at 11:51pm #

    The ‘Global Humanitarian Forum’, with Kofi Annan as President?!! History repeating as tragedy and farce, simultaneously. Believe me Don,in my opinion, if Annan has anything to do with it, run as fast as you can in the other direction. In my opinion, if there has been a more dedicated, unctuous, perfidious servant of the global masters and their omnicidal lust for power in recent times, than Annan, I am mercifully unaware of them. This ‘Forum’ will be a business front, I would surmise, of some sort, and Annan well rewarded for lending his fabricated ‘prestige’ to the endeavour.

  9. kalidas said on May 31st, 2009 at 7:07pm #

    Not to mention Al Gore winning a Nobel PEACE Prize for a theoretical science project.
    Now if Al had won a Nobel prize economics, (as in a quantum advancement of his own) I could easily see that.

  10. mary said on June 1st, 2009 at 2:10am #

    Kalidas I wonder whether the recipients of these prizes and awards ever see the irony. Instead of standing in the dock at The Hague, Blair has just received $1m from the Dan David Foundation. This is the actual citation.
    Anthony Charles Lynton (Tony) Blair, former British Prime Minister, is one of the most outstanding statesmen of our era.

    From the time he assumed leadership of the British Labor Party in 1994 until he stepped down as prime minister in 2007, he showed exceptional intelligence and foresight, and demonstrated moral courage and leadership.

    Tony Blair has consistently asked the important questions and thought deeply about the interconnected world of the 21st century. Early in his prime ministership, he came to two beliefs that guide him to today: first, that it is a mistake for the world to wait for America to solve all of the tough questions, and second, that there are some things a state may do within its borders that justify intervention even if the actions do not directly threaten another nation’s interests.

    Upon stepping down as Prime Minister, Blair was appointed as the Middle East Quartet Representative. As envoy for the united Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States, his goal is to bring stability and peace to the Middle East.

    Throughout his career, Tony Blair has acted on the basis of what he believes to be right, a hallmark of leadership.
    The same foundation gave an award to Gore last year for Social Responsibility with Special Emphasis on the Environment!

  11. Hue Longer said on June 1st, 2009 at 5:30am #


    Wow! That is more disgusting than funny but I’m still laughing. What a strange world