Oliver Taherzadeh, Benedict Probst – Five reasons ‘green growth’ won’t save the planet

The Conversation

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Oliver Taherzadeh, University of Cambridge and Benedict Probst, University of Cambridge

Green growth has emerged as the dominant narrative for tackling contemporary environmental problems. Its supporters, including the likes of the UN, OECD, national governments, businesses and even NGOs, say that sustainability can be achieved through efficiency, technology and market-led environmental action. Green growth suggests we really can have our cake and eat it – both growing the economy and protecting the planet.

But when it comes to tackling the most pressing environmental problems such as climate breakdown, species extinction or resource depletion, green growth might weaken rather than strengthen progress. Here are five reasons why:

1) Growth trumps efficiency

In theory, advances in environmental efficiency can help to “decouple” economic growth from resource use and pollution. But such outcomes remain elusive in the real world. While sectors such as construction, agriculture and transport have managed to create less pollution and use less resources per unit of output, these improvements have struggled to fully offset the scale and speed of economic growth. By outpacing production improvements, economic growth has led to an unhampered rise in resource use, pollution, and waste.

In fact, efficiency may even be fuelling further consumption and pollution. This is a paradox first observed in 1865 by the economist William Stanley Jevons, who noticed the introduction of a more efficient steam engine actually coincided with more coal consumption, not less, as new profits were reinvested in extra production, causing prices to fall, demand to rise, and so on. Such “rebound effects” exist across the whole economy, so the only real solution is to consume less. At best, efficiency is a half-baked solution, at worst, it stokes the very problem it tries to address.

2) Overstated technology

Proponents of green growth want us to believe that ever better technology is the solution. However, we are not so sure. International environmental agreements and scenarios confidently assume large scale technologies will be deployed to capture and store carbon emissions, but we have yet to witness their potential even on a small scale. Mechanised agriculture is being promoted on the basis of increased efficiency and yield while overlooking the fact that low-tech farming is a more productive means of meeting global food demand at lower environmental cost.


Could carbon emissions eventually be captured and stored deep underground?

Clearly, technology is crucial in lowering the environmental burden of production and consumption, but green growth overstates its role.

3) No profit, no action

Perhaps the most compelling argument put forward for green growth is that protecting the environment can go hand-in-hand with making profits. However, in reality there is often a tension between these goals. Many firms are risk averse, for instance, and don’t want to be first-movers, whether on charging for plastic bags, banning plastic cups or introducing carbon labelling.

Then you have the fact that some sustainable interventions are simply not attractive investments for the private sector: there is little profit to be made in conserving ecosystems or financing public infrastructure for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, environmental risks like natural resource depletion or extreme weather might become increasingly attractive to part of the private sector.

If we’re serious about living within environmental limits we need to say adios to certain sectors: fossil fuels, livestock and fertilisers. If we leave that to the market, we’re going to be waiting a long, long time.

4) Green consumption is still consumption

Buying “green” offers a seemingly common sense solution to the environmental ills of over-consumption, but we’re sceptical. The push for greener consumption has devolved responsibility from governments and business to ordinary people. As one commentator put it, we have been conned into fighting environmental issues as individuals, while the real culprits get off scot-free.

Eco-friendly stuff is still made of stuff.
KENG MERRY Paper Art/Shutterstock

Indeed, the very act of green consumption still fuels the extraction and use of natural resources, pollution and environmental degradation. Stuff requires more stuff to produce – this is often overlooked when we buy re-useable cups, eco-appliances and “sustainable” clothing. Any positive impacts of green consumption can also easily be undone through people feeling they have a moral license to indulge elsewhere. Green consumption is a zero sum game if we decide to go vegan then fly long haul. While it’s misguided to think consumers can’t make a difference, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking humanity can consume its way out of environmental problems.

5) The danger of guesswork

A central principle of green growth is that markets are both part of the problem and solution. Proponents of green growth argue that as long as we get the numbers right – a tax on carbon, a clean energy subsidy, or a price tag on nature – markets can foster sustainability. But tackling environmental problems through the market involves a lot of guesswork with no guaranteed outcome.

Unlike carbon, ecosystems and biodiversity are not amenable to economic valuation and substitution within markets. Pricing environmental damage in markets is like selling permits to pollute and trash our natural world. Although market mechanisms can guide business towards sustainable behaviour, only stringent laws and regulation can help bring their growth in line with environmental limits.

Beyond green growth?

Efficiency alone is a blunt tool and techno-fixes will also not get us where we need to be. We need to address the elephant in the room: consumption. As the business case for reducing consumption is poor, so governments and communities need to take charge.

There are promising signs. The next major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report will finally include a chapter on tackling consumption. In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change’s report on net zero by 2050 highlights the critical need for societal change. Questioning our appetite for growth is the first step towards a more inclusive and effective model for sustainability.



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Oliver Taherzadeh, PhD Researcher, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge and Benedict Probst, PhD researcher at Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. It is only very recently that I have noticed fertiliser included in climate change alarums. I cannot be the first to have mentioned nitrogenous fertilisers as a possible cause of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, though I first wrote about it some years ago. The same applies for humus content in agricultural soils. In relation to atmospheric carbon dioxide I mentioned that many more years ago. Again, I cannot have been the first. Soil science has been around for more than a hundred years and practical knowledge of soil fertility ever so much longer.
    There must be a reason why the global warming cum climate change alarmists wish to ignore such an obvious element in the scientific calculations concerning atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. I’m sure there is a specific reason for it, as it defies scientific knowledge, method and probity to ignore obvious and factual elements which have a bearing upon the final result of the computer-driven assumptions about what causes higher carbon levels in the air. For the scientists sufficiently exercised about climate change, the matter is life or death for the planet, or at least, life or death for most of humanity. The article above, however, for the first time I have seen anything from an AGW alarmist perspective, is starting to make some sense of the non-sensical possible solutions mooted to prevent a global catastrophe, if only in a very minor way.
    Perhaps, some day soon, the scientists pushing hard for solutions to the mooted catastrophe could re-calibrate their computer models to include the use of nitrogenous sulfuric compounded artificial fertilisers in agriculture and work out how much carbon is lost in agricultural soils due to the use of artificial fertilisers and ruinous land use.
    Two percent gain in humus content in agricultural soils, say, the first 25 cm, for approx. 15 million square kms must amount to a fair bit of carbon dioxide. Roughly 1 kg of carbon makes 3.5 kg carbon dioxide, I think. That times the number of square metres of agricultural soil in the world, not to mention erosion and otherwise killing off of soils through desertification and the ravages of destructive forestry, must add up to about 50 000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide- Bound to make a difference. I have a (neo)Marxist theory in mind which explains that everything that is felt, thought, spoken and done and left unspoken and undone is at heart a political issue, as a first deduction. The second deduction is a corollary of the first, in that everything that is political, whether it be spoken, unspoken, done or left undone is consciously or otherwise either an ideologically driven phenomenon or a matter of self-interest. These politically motivated phenomena need not always be personal and solely attributable to individuals looking after their own selfish interests, though that cannot be ruled out. In society, and yes, there is still such a thing as society, many people identify their self-interests through groups and classes to which they belong or have a strong affinity with.
    I leave it to social scientists to work out where the class interests of the farming folk fit in here. Maybe the corporate businesses catering to the ‘needs’ of farmers have a bigger stake in the ruination of agricultural soils. The profit motive in the nominally capitalist economy is as short-term in its outlook as the communist commanders’ in regulating the economies of their socialist utopias.

    • There is a connector missing between nitrogenous and sulfuric compounded. It’s not only sulfuric nitrates which acidify soils, but with other nitrogenous fertilisers the effect depends on soil type and whatever else happens to the soil. From a Green perspective, however, any nitrogenous fertiliser takes fossil fuel to produce, transport, store and spread, unlike nitrogen fixers and other biomass which grows in situ where you need it or nearby.
      Fertiliser is not all bad. Even nitrogenous fertiliser has its uses. It gives extra biomass which may be put to good use. The great disadvantage is in that it vastly reduces diversity and activity of certain soil microbials. It has been known from the start that applying nitrogenous fertiliser reduces soil’s natural fertility. Artificial remains artificial.

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