Tuesday, November 16, 2021

COP26: omitting the real emission driver

Another Climate meeting has ended and little will change because the most important issues are not even on the agenda. The discussions about global warming are dominated by the transition to fossil-free energy combined with some attention to energy efficiency. Lately Direct Carbon Capture and geo-engineering has got more attention. The two factors that impacts global warming the most are hardly discussed at al.

Emissions can, according to the Kaya formula, be expressed as the product of the four factors human population, GDP per capita, energy intensity (per unit of GDP), and carbon intensity (emissions per unit of energy). Since 1960 advances in energy intensity and carbon intensity has reduced emissions per unit of GDP (e.g. a dollar) with 50%. That seems impressive, but meanwhile population has grown with 150 % and GDP per capita with almost 250%. The net result is that emissions have increased almost 300% globally (see graph).  

Even with a very rapid growth of renewables and nuclear power combined with unprecedented improvements in efficiency, it is apparent that emissions can’t be sufficiently reduced without stabilization, or a decrease of the population and the economy.  

Stabilization and ultimately shrinking populations are part of most of the IPCC scenarios, which also means one can easily see the impact thereof. None of the many scenarios include, however, a steady state or shrinking economy. In the scenario with the lowest increase of the economy, SSP3, the GDP per capita will still double to 2100. This scenario also includes increased inequality and regional rivalry, as if those where necessarily linked to each other.

The scenarios of the IPCC are not normative but are there to enlighten policy and show possible paths of development. The worst case scenario, SSP5-8,5 shows how the climate will develop if emissions continue and few countermeasures are taken. It shows a global temperature 5 centigrade higher than today. With that in mind it is very hard to understand why there are no IPCC scenarios without growth.

By omitting such scenarios, growth is no longer on the agenda. As it is apparent that renewables, nuclear power and efficiency gains will not be sufficient, direct carbon capture, carbon capture and storage as well as geo-engineering become inevitable. In this way IPCC fails its mission and give us the impression that these, untested, technologies are much more relevant and realistic than a steady state economy or de-growth. This is despite the fact that the only periods of absolute reductions in emissions are linked to economic downturns.

The main point here is not whether it is good or bad per se with degrowth or steady state, but that there are good reasons to develop scenarios without growth. As expressed by Jason Hickel and colleagues in a recent article in Nature Energy:

”Given the enormous challenge of confronting the climate crisis, and following the precautionary principle, modelers should consider a wider range of policy options in order to expand the public debate about climate mitigation, and to reflect the plurality of visions for a sustainable world. ”


Having said that, I think it is pertinent to address some of the arguments against having growth as a policy option, without being exhaustive.

A major objection to a no-growth or a degrowth scenario is that economic growth (expressed as an increase in GDP per capita) is needed to lift income for poor countries and poor people. Even if the GDP measure has its flaws as a measure of development or livelihoods there is a clear need to increase the material living standard of the world’s poor, that includes access to energy, better food, electricity and sanitation. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that global economic growth is the best pathway to ensure that. There is today already, more than enough wealth in the human civilization, it is just badly distributed. According to research by David Woodward published in the World Economic Review, with the patterns of growth  and its distribution 1998-2008 it would take 200 years to end poverty defined as incomes below $5 /day ($1,800 per year), while the average GDP would be 1 million dollars per capita. That is hardly an efficient way of poverty eradication compared to redistributional policies.

Another frequent argument against steady state or degrowth scenarios is that decoupling of energy use and emissions from GDP growth is possible and already happening. This is supposed to take place by several processes such as, efficiency gains, circular economy, sharing economy, green growth strategies, digitalization or the transformation of the economy to a service economy. I have discussed, and dismissed, those at length here. Let me also point to the intriguing analysis of Blair Fix in the article Dematerialization Through Services: Evaluating the Evidence. Globally, the service sector has increased its share of employment from 35% to 50% in less than thirty years, from 1990 to 2019.  In the same period CO2 emissions went from 21 Gt to 35 Gt.