by Liz Kalaugher
At the EGU General Assembly debate on “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” there was discussion whether the session was even titled with the right question. Not to mention the pre-debate issue of whether the speakers should stand up or sit down.
To Clive Spash of WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, the title was too tightly focused on climate and should have widened out to a habitable planet. Spash, who believes that the economic view of the world is unrealistic, said he disagrees that economic growth is vital and thinks it’s politically naïve to try and shut down the debate on whether we need growth. In his view a carbon tax won’t work and decoupling of growth and carbon emissions won’t save us.
Narasimha Rao of IIASA, Austria, also wanted the question to be broader. Rao called for consideration of dimensions of wellbeing beyond economic growth, since the economy doesn’t reflect phenomena such as air pollution and oil spills.
Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, UK, reckons the answer depends on whom we’re referring to – rich people, people in poorer nations, or other species. Some in the rich parts of the world believe we can cope with 2, 3 or even 4 degrees of temperature rise, he said, whilst many developing countries believe that the maximum habitable temperature change for them is 1 or 1.5 degrees, given that many are already feeling the effects of climate change. And significant numbers of animal species are already struggling with temperature rise today, particularly as they’re under other environmental stresses too.
Given the rates of emissions reductions we’d need, Anderson said that a 1-1.5 degree threshold is no longer viable and we’re stuck with 2 or 2.5 degrees at best. “Economic growth is not compatible with a habitable climate for people like us,” he said, arguing that since the relatively poor need economic growth to have a habitable climate, it means big emissions cuts for the rich. And for non-human species, economic growth is again not compatible with a habitable climate.
Finally, Jorgen Randers confessed that having worked in sustainable development since 1972, he has failed as the world is less sustainable now. Randers argued that economic growth is compatible with a habitable climate but human society has not been willing to implement the solutions. To him, the question is “is humanity going to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP fast enough to get greenhouse gas emissions to decrease?” Whilst technically “it’s a piece of cake”, and shifting from dirty to clean production is cheap at a cost of just 1% of GDP, it has not been done and will not be done because people think too short-term. “That’s the sad story,” Randers added.