For all the talk of renewable energy, electric vehicles and plant-based diets, there’s a gaping hole in the way we’re trying to solve accelerating climate change. We will not stay below 2°C of warming while pursuing economic growth — yet barely anyone talks about it.
Since the end of World War II, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has been the metric of human prosperity in Western nations, the idea being that if the productivity of the economy increases so will the wellbeing of the people within that economy. And for a while, that was the case. But since the 1970s, increases in GDP have, on average, failed to translate into increases in wellbeing and happiness.
It is not surprising. Research has shown that once a certain GDP threshold, or level of wellbeing, has been met people gain little from consuming more “stuff” — a necessary requirement for continuous GDP growth.
Robert F Kennedy eloquently summed up the inadequacy of GDP as a metric of wellbeing at a speech he gave in 1968:
…the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
What’s more, GDP has never been and can’t be decoupled from material footprint, including energy. This means we cannot roll out renewable energy fast enough to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement – to keep warming below 2°C – if we continue growing our economy. Three percent growth every year for the rest of this decade is 30% growth by 2030.
Achieving a 75% reduction on 2005 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 is a Herculean effort already, let alone if the economy is 30% bigger by that time. And surely, given the urgency with which we must decarbonise, reducing energy demand must be a part of the mix, even if it means reducing GDP.