Timothée Parrique – Sufficiency means degrowth


Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Cross-posted from Timothée’s Blog

File:The Only Sustainable Growth is Degrowth.jpg

Photo: Paul Sableman licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

It took me a while but I finally digested the 107 pages of Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation in the last IPCC report on Mitigation of climate change. This chapter is worth the read if only because it’s the first one fully dedicated to demand-side strategies. What I find remarkable is its conceptual width, including a few ideas that are usually considered too radical in these kind of venues. But just like the rest of the report, it is long and – as academic writing too often is – full of abstract jargon and somnolent prose. What I want to do in this article is to explain why Chapter 5 is more radical (in the good sense of the term) that you may think.  

What does “demand” mean? 

The chapter uses a variety of demand-related terms like deep demand reductionlow demand scenariosreduced demanddemand-side options, and demand-side measures. Before we get into the details, it is essential to grasp what this demand refers to. Back to economics 101: supply has to do with production and supply-side measures aims at changing patterns of production. In climate discussions, these often revolve around shifting to renewable energy, making production more resource efficient, and deploying carbon removal technologies. Demand, on the other hand, has to do with consumption and demand-side measures[i]target lifestyle choices, institutions, and cultural norms. 

The report divides demand-side measures into three kinds: avoid, shift, and improve.[ii] Avoid consists in consuming less of something; shift means substituting one type of consumption for another; and improve is the greening of an existing type of consumption. If we’re talking about cutting the carbon footprint of food, I can avoid waste, shift to a vegan diet, and improve my cooking equipment. So, this is the central focus of the chapter: What can we avoid, shift, and improve in our consumption to reduce emissions? 

This question may not seem like much but it is. For several decades, the focal point of climate discussions was the decoupling of production and emissions. With hindsight, it seems rather silly we wasted that much time obsessing over the greening of a production that could have been avoided in the first place. After years of wrecking our brains on the design of hydrogen planes, electric cars, and cultured meat, we realise that it would have been much more effective to just fly less, use public transport more, and go vegan. This is how eureka-ish Chapter 5 is.  

Whose demand is it? 

The problem of the supply approach is that it invisibilises inequality. When we say that we should improve the carbon efficiency of a plane, we sideline the matter of who is actually flying and why. From the perspective of demand, however, the question of unequal levels of consumption becomes crucial. Forget about efficiency (for now) because climate mitigation is first and foremost of a question of sufficiency, namely “measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries,” as defined in the SPM. And that’s where the concept of basic needs and well-being for all within planetary boundaries takes all its revolutionary meaning. In an unequal world with a limited carbon budget, we should discuss who is entitled to consume what. If you think this question is too polemical or philosophical for an IPCC report, think again. Here is perhaps the one single most important paragraph from Chapter 5 (pp. 29-30), which I will split in five smaller parts. 

 “The distinction between necessities and luxuries helps to frame a growing stream of social sciences literature with climate policy relevance (Arrow et al. 2004Ramakrishnan and Creutzig 2021).” 

We’re not used to talk about necessities and luxuries in climate politics. Usually, we assume that the entirety of our consumption can be greened. Except, now we know that it cannot (this is point I made regarding the limits to greening growth in a previous article). The failure of decoupling strategies, and the accelerating urgency of avoiding climate breakdown put us in the unfamiliar position of having to choose between sustaining current levels of consumption or preserving climate stability. This reminds me of some of the last words of The Limits to Growth, already fifty years ago: “As soon as a society recognizes that it cannot maximize everything for everyone, it must begin to make choices. Should there be more people or wealth, more wilderness or more automobiles, more food for the poor or more services for the rich?” This is the choice we’re facing now. 

[…] “Given growing public support worldwide for strong sustainability, sufficiency, and sustainable consumption, changing demand patterns and reduced demand are accompanying environmental and social benefits (Jackson 2008Fedrigo et al. 2010Schroeder 2013Figge et al. 2014Spangenberg and Germany 2016Spengler 2016Mont et al. 2020Burke 2020).”

Let me translate in plain English: consuming less and differently is good for people and the planet. This is what (Jackson 2008, p.21) calls the double dividend: “If the consumer way of life is both ecologically damaging and psychologically flawed, then the possibility remains that we could live better by consuming less and reduce our impact on the environment at the same time.” 

[…] “Beyond a threshold, increased material consumption is not closely correlated with improvements in human progress (Kahneman and Deaton 2010Vita et al. 2019b2020Frank 1999Steinberger and Roberts 2010Oishi et al. 2018Xie et al. 2018Wang et al. 2019Roy et al. 2012).”

This is called the saturation hypothesis (also the Easterlin Paradox or the wellbeing-consumption paradox), which is summarised elsewhere in Chapter 5: “vital dimensions of human well-being correlate with consumption, but only up to a threshold” (p.19). If you need to go somewhere and you suddenly get access to a bike, you’re happy. If you get a second bike, you’ll perhaps be happy still, but not as much as the first time. If you get a third bike, you won’t bother even using it because you already have two. If you get 10 more bikes, you’ll actually be annoyed because you won’t know where to put them. After a certain threshold (here of bikes), the wellbeing you derive from them will saturate. This individual commonsense we experience every day is also true for a country as a whole. Past a certain threshold of GDP per capita, further economic growth will not improve wellbeing. 

This idea of a satiation threshold divides consumption in two kinds: one below the threshold that should then be increased, and one above that we can afford to decrease. If you’re malnourished, you’re under-consuming and you need to consume more to reach a sufficiency level; if you’re suffering from obesity, you’re likely to be over-consuming and your wellbeing strategy will consist in consuming less. Because meat has a high carbon footprint, eating less of it will reap a double dividend: emissions will go down while health improves. Now, imagine that the quantity of meat or the carbon budget associated with its consumption is limited, should we rather let the malnourished eat the meat or feed it to those above the satiation point? Thing is, every natural resource is fundamentally limited, which finally means this: in a finite world, the too-much of “people far above Decent Living Standards levels” (p.18) quickly becomes the not-enough of others.  

[…] “Policies focusing on the “super-rich,” also called the “polluter elite,” are gaining attention for moral or norms-based as well as emissions-control reasons (Kenner 2019Pascale et al. 2020Stratford 2020Otto et al. 2019) (see Section Conspicuous consumption by the wealthy is the cause of a large proportion of emissions in all countries, related to expenditures on such things as air travel, tourism, large private vehicles and large homes (Preston 2010[iii]Gore 2015Sahakian 2018Osuoka and Haruna 2019Lynch et al. 2019Roy and Pal 2009Hubacek et al. 2017Jorgenson et al. 2017Gössling 2019Kenner 2019Roy et al. 2012).”

The “polluter elite” is a term coined by Dario Kenner when launching a database of rich people holding significant amounts of shares in polluting companies (see Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change). The climate problem with wealth is not only a matter of lifestyle but also of investment. Wealthy individuals only consume part of their income, the rest being invested in various projects, many of them disastrous for the planet. Shareholders tend to defend their financial returns by sidelining social and ecological concerns while organising production, which is why the most lucrative activities are often the least socially and ecologically sustainable. Driven by short-term, financial objectives, these actors have an incentive to boost sales. The more money they get in return, the more they can re-invest, giving them an even bigger control over production

Of course, lifestyle emissions matter too. The term “super-rich” comes from an article in Nature by Otto et al. (2019) which estimates the footprint of a typical super-rich household at around 129.3 tCO2e per year. Lynch et al. (2019, p.1) calls the consumption of super yachts, large homes, luxury vehicles and private jets criminal since “they disrupt the normal regeneration and reproduction of ecosystems by generating excessive ecological disorganization.” The paragraph references an 2015 Oxfam report showing that the richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions. Because the rich emit so much more than the rest, a widening of inequality drives total emissions up, as shown by Jorgenson et al. (2017) for the case of the United States. Unless it’s not obvious already, the essential point to grasp here is that rich people must consume less.[iv]

[…] “Since no country now meets its citizens’ basic needs at a level of resource use that is globally sustainable, while high levels of life satisfaction for those just escaping extreme poverty require even more resources, the need for transformative shifts in governance and policies is large (O’Neill et al. 2018Vogel et al. 2021).” 

This sentence is ambiguous, so let me rephrase. We live in a world where poverty remains and those with unmet needs require more resources to satisfy them. We also live in an ecologically-constrained world struggling to cut emissions as fast as possible. In that context, by reducing consumption in the global North (and more generally for all of those who are over-consuming), one could free some of these resources for the people who need it the most. Ensuring basic needs and well-being for all necessarily implies limiting consumption in high-income regions and wealthy households in order to enable resource-poor countries and households to reach decent standards of living. In other words, degrowth in the global North is a prerequisite for sustainable development in the global South. 

Reducing demand is degrowth 

Does that mean that Chapter 5 is a call for degrowth? The answer is a resounding yes. Degrowth as a planned and democratic reduction of production and consumption in rich countries to lower environmental pressures and inequalities while improving well-being is precisely what Chapter 5 is about. Some of its authors may not like the term, but the idea remains: reducing demand is degrowth. I mean, there is even a direct mention of the term in the chapter. 

“Consumption reductions, both voluntary and policy-induced, can have positive and double-dividend effects on efficiency as well as reductions in energy and materials use (Mulder et al. 2006Harriss and Shui 2010Grinde et al. 2018Spangenberg and Lorek 2019Figge et al. 2014Vita et al. 2020). Less waste, better emissions control and more effective carbon policies lead to better governance and stronger democracies. Systems-dynamics models linking strong emissions-reducing policies and strong social equity policies show that a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability is possible, even without economic growth (Kallis et al. 2012Jackson and Victor 2016Stuart et al. 2017; [D’Alessandro et al. 2020]; Huang et al. 2019Victor 2019Chapman and Fraser 2019Gabriel and Bond 2019). Such degrowth pathways may be crucial in combining technical feasibility of mitigation with social development goals (Hickel et al. 2021Keyßer and Lenzen 2021)” (Ch.5 p.32). 

Degrowth, as an overall strategy to downsize economic activities to a more sustainable scale, necessarily involves voluntary and policy-induced consumption reductions. Many of the sixty demand-side options that the chapter presents are part of the degrowth agenda. The five most effective avoid-related interventions to reduce emissions have to do with ditching cars and flying less. The ten most effective shift ones concern public transport, vegan and vegetarian diets, lower carbon meats, organic food, active mobility, and local food. The improve options (electric cars, renewable electricity, refurbishment and renovation, heat pump) also play an important part in the degrowth discourse. 

Of course, it’s one thing to recommend going vegan and another to call for an overhaul of capitalism (as degrowth does). And here the chapter is conceptually shy. It calls for a radical reduction in demand but falls short in exploring its system-wide implications. From a degrowth perspective, renewable electricity is more desirable in the form of low-tech and community-owned infrastructure. Electric cars can be useful in replacing un-avoidable private vehicles like delivery trucks, taxis, and ambulances, but should not be treated as a way to sustain a car-based transport system. The refurbishment and renovation of housing is an urgent task, and so it should be entrusted to partly state-financed, not-for-profit businesses. Public transport should be treated a social right and organised following the logic of Universal Basic Services

“Decent Living Standards (DLS) serves as a socio-economic benchmark as it views human welfare not in relation to consumption but rather in terms of services which together help meet human needs (e.g. nutrition, shelter, health, etc.), recognising that these service needs may be met in many different ways (with different emissions implications) depending on local contexts, cultures, geography, available technologies, social preferences, and other factors” (p.17). 

Difficult here not to think of Manfred Max-Neef’s Matrix of Fundamental Human Needs or of Amartya Sen’s concept of “capabilities.” Decent living standards are not a matter of money but rather a matter of capabilities, only some of which depend on money. The pursuit of endless economic growth in nations who have already crossed the satiation threshold is a misguided development strategy. This strategy can also be counter-productive if the things we sacrifice to increase production (free time, scarce materials, a limited carbon budget) are actually much more valuable for well-being that the increase in income we get for them. A development strategy that focuses on health, conviviality, and sustainability is much more adapted to secure prosperity than a monomaniac focus on money points – or in IPCC words: “development targeted to basic needs and well-being for all entails less carbon-intensity than GDP-focused growth” (p.15). 

“Equitable & democratic societies which provide high quality public services to their population have high well-being outcomes at lower energy use than those which do not, whereas those which prioritize economic growth beyond moderate incomes and extractive sectors display a reversed effect (Vogel et al. 2021)” (p.27). 

This is why the authors of Chapter 5 plead for “prioritizing human well-being and the environment over economic growth” (p.17). Now, let that statement sink for a second for that it has radical implications. Prioritizing people and planet over profits means that regardless how lucrative an activity is, its raison d’être should systematically be evaluated based on its social utility and ecological sustainability. From this principle comes a corollary that is equally simple yet far more provocative: we will have to shut down a large swatch of today’s economic activities. Entire sectors like advertising, real-estate management, and financial services, products like SUVs, private jets, and personal data, should simply cease to exist. Radically reducing demand means dismantling a large part of our economy. 

“These five drivers of human behaviour either contribute to the status-quo of a global high-carbon, consumption, and GDP growth oriented economy or help generate the desired change to a low-carbon energy-services, well-being, and equity oriented economy (Jackson 2017Cassiers et al. 2018Yuana et al. 2020)” (p.17). 

So, my fundamental point is this: we should not treat demand-side strategies as mere lifestyle tweaks. They go deeper than that. To enable the radical reduction Chapter 5 talks about, and in order to secure our ability to “prosper without growth” (Jackson, 2017) or to guarantee basic needs and well-being for all within planetary boundaries, as IPCC authors would say, we need to completely rethink our economic system. We need to transition from a growth-oriented economy to a low-carbon energy-services, well-being and equity-oriented economy – a “post-growth economy” (Cassiers et al., 2018).  


Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation is an ode to degrowth. “Degrowth” may only be mentioned 7 times in the whole mitigation report, but idea is all over the chapter. This is about time. After thirty years of ineffective climate politics, finally a new idea makes it to the top of the pile.  Instead of bickering about decoupling, passively waiting for a quasi-magical greening of GDP, we can finally switch to Plan B. Let’s forget about income and talk about needs; let’s ditch average per capita aggregates, and address inequality head on; let’s stop taking demand as granted and let’s reinvent the ways we satisfy our needs. The task is huge but now at least we know: we need to invent ourselves a new economic system.

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