Green growth has emerged as the dominant narrative for tackling contemporary environmental problems. Its supporters include the likes of the UN, OECD, national governments, businesses and even NGOs.
These groups believe 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's why.
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.
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.
Turning a profit
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.
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.
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.
Elephant in the room
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.
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.
Oliver Taherzadeh is a PhD researcher in the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. Benedict Probst is a PhD researcher at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, University of Cambridge. This article was first published on The Conversation.