Sunday, May 12, 2019
There's no need to sacrifice growth to save the planet
Posted by David Smith at 09:00 AM
Category: David Smith's other articles

My regular column is available to subscribers on This is an excerpt.

It is hard to get away from climate change these days. Most people would agree that it is a bigger issue, certainly for the long-term, than the one that has been unnecessarily preoccupying us for the past three years. Parliament has trouble agreeing on much these days but it has this month declared “a climate emergency”. The Environment Agency has warned that entire communities may have to be moved because of flooding and coastal erosion.

Climate change is also actively affecting policy. The Scottish government has just cancelled a planned cut in air passenger duty, because reducing the cost of flying would run counter to its ambition of making Scotland a zero-carbon economy before the middle of the century. In a different political environment, Philip Hammond could use the same logic to end the long freeze on fuel duty, which has lasted all this decade.

That we should be concerned about climate change is not in doubt, and it did not take the recent Extinction Rebellion protests to create that concern. Sir David Attenborough tops the list of Britain’s national treasures and his warning of a climate “catastrophe” in his BBC programme, Climate Change – The Facts, had a big influence. As he put it, we face “irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies"

Not all of the problems of the natural world.are due to climate change, but many are, and last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES made for sobering reading.

Around a million of the world’s 8m plant and animal species (5.5m of which are insects), face extinction. Three-quarters of terrestrial environment and two-thirds of marine environments have been “severely altered” by human intervention and there has been an 85% drop in wetlands in the past thee centuries.

According to Sir Robert Watson, the chairman of IPBES: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

This is not something, in other words, we can ignore. There is a feedback loop from the natural environment to economic activity and prosperity. It is not a question of the economy or the environment; the two are intimately linked. A report on Thursday from the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Centre for Economic Justice declared that “environmental breakdown has reached a critical stage” and added: “Our current economic model is fundamentally unsustainable.”

Is it? Sometimes in this debate there is a crude lesson drawn on economic growth and the environ-ment, which is that the only way of saving the planet is by giving up on growth. Not many sensible people say this explicitly but many activists do, and it is not far below the surface even in some of the heavyweight reports. The IPBES notes a 15% increase in global per capita use of materials since 1980 as one of the factors behind environmental degradation.

It is, however, plainly the case that you can both have economic growth and do right by the planet. The UK’s expert committee on climate change, in a recent report, noted that there has been a 44% reduction in Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, alongside a 75% increase in real gross domestic product. Economic growth and reduced greenhouse gas emissions have gone hand in hand.

Britain has had a better record than most, but in the first 15 years of the current century there were more than 30 other countries, mainly advanced industrial countries, which combined economic growth with falling emissions.

Those following this debate will be aware that the official way of measuring greenhouse gas emis-sions is not the only one. The young activist Greta Thunberg told MPs last month that Britain was guilty of “creative carbon accounting”. What she meant, I think, is the reduction in emissions since 1990 is on a production basis.

On a consumption basis, taking into account air transport, shipping and the fact that Britain has, not through choice, contracted out much of its manufacturing to high-emitting China, she argued that the true reduction in emissions by this country since 1990s is closer to 10%, according to some re-searchers.

Even accepting this lower figure for emissions reductions does not change the underlying argument that you can have economic growth while reducing your contribution to global warming. Undermining Britain’s achievements, which include a record run this month without the use of coal for electricity generation, is hardly the best way to gain public and political support for the measures and sacrifices that will be needed to achieve a 100% reduction in emissions by 2050.

The committee on climate change wants legislation for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping. It wants that target achieved by domestic actions, not through the purchase of carbon credits.

Those actions include, according to the committee: “ A supply of low-carbon electricity (which will need to quadruple by 2050), efficient buildings and low-carbon heating (required throughout the UK’s building stock), electric vehicles (which should be the only option from 2035 or earlier), devel-oping carbon capture and storage technology and low-carbon hydrogen (which are a necessity not an option), stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill, phasing-out potent fluorinated gases, increasing tree planting, and measures to reduce emissions on farms.” The cost, it says, will be be-tween 1% and 2% of GDP. The benefits could be considerable.

Are these measures consistent with continued economic growth? Yes, very clearly, though they will require a considerable and prolonged programme of investment. It is not being unduly optimistic to say that greener growth will bring significant opportunities.

As the committee puts it: “The UK could receive an industrial boost as it leads the way in low-carbon products and services including electric vehicles, finance and engineering, carbon capture and storage and hydrogen technologies with potential benefits for exports, productivity and jobs.” With some slightly more astute political leadership than we have seen recently, it should also be eminently possible for it to go with the grain of public opinion.

Britain can, then, combine economic growth with lower carbon emissions, and with other action to reduce the impact of economic activity on the environment.

The bigger challenge is whether this can happen globally, particularly in countries
in a different stage of economic and industrial development than Britain. Global greenhouse gas emissions did not rise much over the 2014-16 period but rose in 2017 and 2018. Last year’s increase was 1.7%. Every 1% of global economic growth produced an increase of nearly 0.5% in emissions. Britain is doing well but there is a lot of work to be done globally.