Quantcast
Climate
Kevin Dooley / Flickr

Can Emissions Shrink While the Economy Grows?

What does climate change have to do with economic growth? Canada's prime minister and premiers signed a deal in December to "grow our economy, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and build resilience to the impacts of a changing climate." The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change outlines plans for carbon pricing, energy-efficient building codes, electric vehicle charging stations, methane emission regulations and more.

Is the framework correct in assuming we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow the economy? If not, which should be given precedence?


These questions come at a pivotal moment in Canadian climate action. The Pan-Canadian Framework marks the first time Canada's first ministers have endorsed a national plan to tackle climate change. It opens the door to a game-changing carbon price that will make reducing greenhouse gas emissions the smart, cost-saving choice for businesses and individuals.

However, a recent Nature Climate Change article claimed, "No major advanced industrialized country is on track to meet its pledges to control the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change." Canada pushed for ambitious targets during the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, but even the framework won't put us on track to meet our pledged reductions.

Rather than being an outcome of climate action, economic growth may prevent us from reaching climate targets. A July 2017 study in Nature Climate Change concluded that the world only has a five percent chance of keeping global average temperature from increasing beyond 2° C. On a positive note, the authors found economies worldwide will likely become more energy-efficient, and low-carbon sources like wind and solar will make up a growing share of the mix.

But economic growth will likely cancel out these advances. For every megatonne of emissions reduced through efficiency and clean energy, another megatonne will be produced because of economic expansion. Our economies will get bigger almost as fast as they get cleaner and emissions will not drop quickly enough to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Economic growth has been the primary goal of every Canadian government, provincial and federal, for decades. Leaders' speeches are peppered with references to it. Election campaigns are filled with promises of economic expansion. Pity the politician who presides over an economic downturn.

Rarely do we stop to ask what economic growth means. In short, it's a year-to-year increase in production, distribution and consumption, as expressed by gross domestic product.

If GDP strikes you as a poor indicator of well-being, you're not alone. The late U.S. politician Robert F. Kennedy once remarked that GDP "measures everything, except that which makes life worth living." It's a flawed indicator of progress.

The Pan-Canadian Framework expresses optimism that we can reduce emissions while expanding the economy. This promise of "green growth" is popular because it offers something for everybody. It maintains a commitment to economic growth while claiming greenhouse gas emissions will drop. But, as the Nature Climate Change study asserted, "green growth" is likely an oxymoron.

"Degrowth" advocates argue that tackling climate change requires shrinking the economy. A planned slowdown of the economy would be achieved by implementing shorter workweeks and more holidays and encouraging low-consumption lifestyles.

"Agrowth" advocates such as environmental economist Jeroen van den Bergh argue that we should ignore GDP altogether, and instead evaluate progress using indicators such as literacy, employment, rates of diabetes and heart disease, water and air quality and climate stability. If GDP happens to go up while these indicators improve, so be it. If GDP goes down while other measures of well-being increase, what have we truly lost?

When the Pan-Canadian Framework is implemented, some economic sectors will likely grow. Companies that offer low-carbon energy sources, energy-efficient products and opportunities to offset or store greenhouse gas emissions will prosper. Other sectors, like coal mining for power production, will shrink. We may or may not have "clean growth," but we will have a cleaner economy and a better shot at preventing or mitigating climate change's most harrowing effects.

If moving beyond the Pan-Canadian Framework is at odds with growing the economy, let's make sure our elected officials have their priorities straight. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions should take precedence over economic growth.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation research fellow Brett Dolter. Dolter is co-editor of the recently released Handbook on Growth and Sustainability.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
iStock

The Hazards of EIA Energy Forecasts

Accepting the conclusions of the latest energy outlook, released last week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) means also accepting certain climate catastrophe.

As we have noted before, the EIA has made a routine out of releasing unrealistic, distorted and dangerous outlooks on the future of global energy demand. These projections should come with a warning label.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Sci-Fi Novel Envisions Corporatocracy in a Climate-Changed Future

By Nexus Media, with Tal M. Klein

In Tal Klein's new novel, The Punch Escrow, humans have successfully tackled disease and climate change, but powerful corporations control everything. The book has created a stir among sci-fi fans, and there are already plans to adapt it to the big screen. In this conversation with Nexus Media, Klein shares his perspective on science, technology and the future of our species. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Dubai Electricity and Water Authority Facebook

World's Largest Solar Park to Also Host World's Tallest Solar Tower

The Dubai government has awarded a $3.9 billion contract to construct the 700-megawatt fourth and final phase of the world-record-holding Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park.

The project also includes the construction of an 850-foot-tall solar tower that receives focused sunlight, the world's tallest such structure once complete.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Nike

Nike's New 'Flyleather' Sneakers Are Made From 50% Recycled Leather

By Daniele Selby

Nike's new sneakers are pretty fly—and we're not just talking about how they look. The company's new Flyleather sneakers look good, feel great and are less damaging to the environment.

In 2012, Nike introduced its Flyknit technology, which recycled plastic and other material into lightweight shoes, according to GQ. With Flyknit shoes, Nike aimed to make sustainable fashion functional and trendy, and it has applied that same mentality to its new Flyleather shoes, which it unveiled this week to coincide with Climate Week.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of 15 threatened wild places profiled in "Too Wild To Drill." Florian Schulz

These 15 Unique Wild Lands Are Threatened By Extractive Industries

A new report released Tuesday by The Wilderness Society raises the alarm about wild lands threatened by extractive industries eager to exploit the resources on or underneath them, including oil, gas and coal.

Too Wild To Drill identifies 15 unique places found on public lands that are at high risk of drilling, mining and other development—and the damage and destruction that inevitably follow. These lands provide Americans with important benefits such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and jobs and other socioeconomic benefits.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
USGS Science Explorer page has zero search results for "effects of climate change." It previously had 2,825 items, according to climate scientist Peter Gleick.

'No Results Found': Thousands of Climate Science Links Purged From USGS Online Database

Yet another U.S. agency has deleted climate change information from its website. This time, the U.S. Geological Survey's "Science Explorer" website—a tax-payer funded online database for the public to browse USGS science programs and activities—has been purged of thousands of formerly searchable climate science links.

The startling discovery was made by Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Science.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
New York City lights up green to stand for the Paris agreement. C40 Cities

These Companies Support Climate Action, So Why Are They Funding Opposition to It?

By Rachel Leven and Jamie Smith Hopkins

The international climate-fighting pact would create jobs, Google said. Leaving the deal known as the Paris accord would be bad for business, top executives from Bank of America and Coca-Cola argued. When President Donald Trump committed to yanking the U.S. out anyway, PayPal and Western Union countered "We are still in."

These corporate titans and at least 22 others were among those who sought to preserve the U.S.' role in the landmark Paris agreement ratified by about 160 countries. So why exactly would these 27 business powerhouses also support a GOP group that's fought to undo a key Obama-era domestic climate initiative?

Keep reading... Show less

How Monsanto Manufactured 'Outrage' at Chemical Cancer Classification It Expected

By Carey Gillam

Three years ago this month Monsanto executives realized they had a big problem on their hands.

It was September 2014 and the company's top-selling chemical, the weed killer called glyphosate that is the foundation for Monsanto's branded Roundup products, had been selected as one among a handful of pesticides to undergo scrutiny by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Monsanto had spent decades fending off concerns about the safety of glyphosate and decrying scientific research indicating the chemical might cause cancer or other diseases. And even though the IARC review was still months away, Monsanto's own scientists knew what the outcome would likely be—and they knew it wouldn't be good.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox