Green growth or degrowth?

Written By: - Date published: 11:07 am, November 22nd, 2023 - 21 comments
Categories: climate change, economy - Tags: , ,

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Ivan Savin, ESCP Business School and Lewis King, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Idea of green growth losing traction among climate policy researchers, survey of nearly 800 academics reveals

When she took to the floor to give her State of the Union speech on 13 September, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen largely stood by the script. Describing her vision of an economically buoyant and sustainable Europe in the era of climate change, she called on the EU to accelerate the development of the clean-tech sector, “from wind to steel, from batteries to electric vehicles”. “When it comes to the European Green Deal, we stick to our growth strategy,” von der Leyen said.

Her plans were hardly idiosyncratic. The notion of green growth – the idea that environmental goals can be aligned with continued economic growth – is still the common economic orthodoxy for major institutions like the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD has promised to “strengthen their efforts to pursue green growth strategies […], acknowledging that green and growth can go hand-in-hand”, while the World Bank has called for “inclusive green growth” where “greening growth is necessary, efficient, and affordable”. Meanwhile, the EU has framed green growth as

“a basis to sustain employment levels and secure the resources needed to increase public welfare […] transforming production and consumption in ways that reconcile increasing GDP with environmental limits”.

However, our survey of nearly 800 climate policy researchers from around the world reveals widespread scepticism toward the concept in high-income countries, amid mounting literature arguing that the principle may neither be viable nor desirable. Instead, alternative post-growth paradigms including “degrowth” and “agrowth” are gaining traction.

Differentiating green growth from agrowth and degrowth

But what do these terms signify?

The “degrowth” school of thought proposes a planned reduction in material consumption in affluent nations to achieve more sustainable and equitable societies. Meanwhile, supporters of “agrowth” adopt a neutral view of economic growth, focusing on achieving sustainability irrespective of GDP fluctuations. Essentially, both positions represent scepticism toward the predominant “green growth” paradigm with degrowth representing a more critical view.

Much of the debate centres around the concept of decoupling – whether the economy can grow without corresponding increases in environmental degradation or greenhouse gas emissions. Essentially, it signifies a separation of the historical linkage between GDP growth and its adverse environmental effects. Importantly, absolute decoupling rather than relative decoupling is necessary for green growth to succeed. In other words, emissions should decrease during economic growth, and not just grow more slowly.

Green growth proponents assert that absolute decoupling is achievable in the long term, although there is a division regarding whether there will be a short-term hit to economic growth. The degrowth perspective is critical that absolute decoupling is feasible at the global scale and can be achieved at the rapid rate required to stay within Paris climate targets. A recent study found that current rates of decoupling in high-income are falling far short of what is needed to limit global heating to well below 2°C as set out by the Paris Agreement.

The agrowth position covers more mixed, middle-ground views on the decoupling debate. Some argue that decoupling is potentially plausible under the right policies, however, the focus should be on policies rather than targets as this is confusing means and ends. Others may argue that the debate is largely irrelevant as GDP is a poor indicator of societal progress – a “GDP paradox” exists, where the indicator continues to be dominant in economics and politics despite its widely recognised failings.

7 out of 10 climate experts sceptical of green growth

How prevalent are degrowth and agrowth views among experts? As part of a recent survey completed by 789 global researchers who have published on climate change mitigation policies, we asked questions to assess the respondents’ positions on the growth debate. Strikingly, 73% of all respondents expressed views aligned with “agrowth” or “degrowth” positions, with the former being the most popular. We found that the opinions varied based on the respondent’s country and discipline (see the figure below).

green growth, degrowth and agrowth split according to scientific discipline
The chart shows the school of thought espoused by 789 global researchers, according to geographical origin and scientific discipline.
Fourni par l’auteur

While the OECD itself strongly advocates for green growth, researchers from the EU and other OECD nations demonstrated high levels of scepticism. In contrast, over half of the researchers from non-OECD nations, especially in emerging economies like the BRICS nations, were more supportive of green growth.

Disciplinary rifts

Furthermore, a disciplinary divide exists. Environmental and other social scientists, excluding orthodox economists, were the most sceptical of green growth. In contrast, economists and engineers showed the highest preference for green growth, possibly indicative of trust in technological progress and conventional economic models that suggest economic growth and climate goals are compatible.

Our analysis also examined the link between the growth positions and the GDP per capita of a respondent’s country of origin. A discernible trend emerged: as national income rises, there is increased scepticism toward green growth. At higher income levels, experts increasingly supported the post-growth argument that beyond a point, the socio-environmental costs of growth may outweigh the benefits.

The results were even more pronounced when we factored in the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), suggesting that aspects beyond income, such as inequality and overall development, might influence these views.

In a world grappling with climate change and socio-economic disparities, these findings should not simply be dismissed. They underline the need for a more holistic dialogue on sustainable development, extending beyond the conventional green growth paradigm.

Post-growth thought no longer a fringe position

Although von der Leyen firmly stood in the green growth camp, this academic shift is increasingly reflected in the political debate. In May 2023, the European Parliament hosted a conference on the topic of “Beyond Growth” as an initiative of 20 MEPs from five different political groups and supported by over 50 partner organisations. Its main objective was to discuss policy proposals to move beyond the approach of national GDP growth being the primary measure of success.

Six national and regional governments – Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Wales, Finland, and Canada – have joined the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership. The primary aim of the movement is to transition to “an economy designed to serve people and planet, not the other way around.”

Clearly, post-growth thought is no longer a fringe, radical position within those working on solutions to climate change. Greater attention needs to be given to why some experts are doubtful that green growth can be achieved as well as potential alternatives focussed on wider concepts of societal wellbeing rather than limited thinking in terms of GDP growth.The Conversation

Ivan Savin, Associate professor of business analytics, research fellow at ICTA-UAB, ESCP Business School and Lewis King, Postdoctoral research fellow in Ecological economics, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

21 comments on “Green growth or degrowth? ”

  1. Ad 1

    Mostly each country's economic fate it has in the resources within its boundaries. Excepting micro-states with highpaid commuter workers.

    We generally don't have the ability to change our whole growth trajectory. We've tried here from 1939 to 1984, and yet we're still very, very path dependent.

    And we can't all be lucky like Norway.

    Where we really slow down by sub-rwgion we've been forced to by seismic or weather crises.

    Acemoglu and Robinson are best on this.

  2. lprent 2

    You can think about it in terms of demographics and existing vs additional plant.

    If a country has most of its infrastructure up to affluent standards, then they are most likely to also be in a state of demographic stability or decline.

    There is no real incentive to increase growth because the majority of their population is over 45 and there is no significant need to extend infrastructure. The exceptions being countries with high nett inwards migration (offhand that is Aussie, NZ, US, Canada and some of the Gulf states. The EU states generally have inwards migration that nearly doesn't offset population decline ), and Africa which has been retarded by laggard political systems and endemic HIV.

    But if you have a declining and ageing population, then you are likely to have quite flat economic growth as well. Plant and infrastructure gets replaced at depreciation rates rather than high birth rates or high nett inwards migration rates.

    The enthusiasm for any growth comes where there is a wish to put in new infrastructure or to replace aging and failing infrastructure. Green growth is just growth. Seeking growth is more of a characteristic of developing or rapidly growing societies than it is for affluent ones.

    Since we are now in the period of rapidly declining projected rates of increase in world population, there is in general way less urgency in increasing capacity than there was 65 years ago. There is less of a perceived need for it as many countries and societies ratchet themselves out of abject poverty to some form of affluence

    From here to the end of the century (76 years) we're only projecting a 2.4 billion increase. Whereas in my lifetime (born 1959 – ~64 years) world population grew from ~3 billion to ~8 billion, which is more than double what we are likely to see over the next 75 years.

    • Belladonna 2.1

      I agree when it comes to consumer growth spending. As the population bulge passes from the middle aged to the retired – the spending patterns change radically – as do investment patterns. Retired people typically want low risk investments – rather than higher risk/higher reward ones that work for people with a longer timeframe before they need to spend the money.

    • adam 2.2

      The exceptions being countries with high nett inwards migration (offhand that is Aussie, NZ, US, Canada

      I was under the impression even with high nett inwards migration, Canada and Aussie were still struggling to keep on top of rapid decline. With NZ and USA the only two doing really well in that regard. As people who go to NZ and USA have more than 2 babies. Not sure on the Gulf states.

  3. pat 3

    The article appears to lack a key ingredient…a definition of growth.

    Growth of what and by what measure? There is a cursory mention of decoupling but that dosnt cover the required definition. Increasing asset values tells us nothing about output nor stocks.

    • Incognito 3.1

      I think it’s pretty clear from the article that they all used the good old conventional indicator GDP as a proxy for economic growth, with its caveats regarding socio-environmental wellbeing.

      The main point of the article is that there are different schools of thought that have different views on whether GDP growth is compatible with ecological sustainability. These views appear to be shifting and this is changing the debate.

      I’d add that the NACTF Government will be firmly planted in the Green Growth camp if not in the ‘Brown Growth’ one.

      • pat 3.1.1

        It may be clear that they used GDP as proxy for economic growth but it is also equally clear that all parties agree it is not a sufficient measure….and it is also clear that the role of finance is ignored.

        The main point of the article is therefore lost as it is debating unreality.

        The debate of the future of society is (or rather should be) what level of resource do we have and can use and how are they allocated….and that cannot happen without addressing the monetary system and its motivations/implications.

        And as noted, that is not a debate that will be resolved by agreement.

        • Incognito 3.1.1.1

          Silly me, I knew it was a waste of time responding to you.

          Let me know when you’re ready to engage in good faith in genuine debate rather than asserting your opinions as facts, rewriting and rerouting existing debate(s), and pre-empting outcomes of debates and (in)actions.

  4. There is only one fix , deportation through birth control world wide, any one trying to increase birth rates is criminally insane.

    • Belladonna 4.1

      I don't know where the excess babies would be deported to – if this is world wide!

      Most Western countries have either falling birth rates, or ones which are only maintaining the replacement level through a combination of immigration and some ethnic groups which have a higher birthrate (NZ falls into this category for both reasons – Maori/Polynesian families typically have more than 2 children, and we are a magnet country for family immigration)

      The countries which would be affected by your proposed solution are third world countries – which typically have both high birth rates and high child mortality rates; and/or countries where women are allowed minimal control over the number of children/pregnancies they have. How would you propose mandating your solution in places which typically have minimal health care?

      In NZ – do you propose shunning for people with more than 2 kids? Higher taxes? Mandatory adoption for the excess? Requiring parents to pay full fees for education and medical care for the extra children?

      Just what sanctions should be imposed on these "criminally insane" parents?

      • bwaghorn 4.1.1

        https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/491585/christopher-luxon-urges-kiwis-to-have-more-babies-saying-it-would-be-helpful

        Stop electing morons would help, education seems to work, get people away from cult religious beliefs

        Shit it obvious that the planet is over stocked with humans ,we supposedly a clever ape but I'm seeing little evidence of it,

        Shit degrowthers are just as delusional as cc deniers

      • bwaghorn 4.1.2

        Just what sanctions should be imposed on these "criminally insane" parents?

        Never said that, it's government leaders that push the more population bullshit because they can't see past growth.

        • Belladonna 4.1.2.1

          The link you provided was Luxon making a joke that the alternative to immigration was greater numbers of home-grown babies.

          And, it's not about 'growth' it's about population trends which are already negative (i.e. de-growth has already happened in NZ). More people are retiring out of 'productive' social roles (GPs, Dentists, Veterinarians, Bus drivers), and fewer people are entering the workforce to replace them. This is not speculation, it's reality.

          The population trend isn't absolutely negative yet, for two reasons: the retirees have just retired, not died; and we're allowing fairly open immigration.

          There are several alternatives:

          • Open up immigration to fill these roles (that was Labour's solution – and I expect that National would follow suit – though NZF has traditionally not been keen)
          • Engage in workforce planning (sorry if you wanted to be a chef, but NZ needs bus drivers, so that's what you'll be doing)
          • A more modified workforce planning solution, which uses wages and conditions to encourage people into the jobs where the country needs them, and puts barriers in place where we don't (e.g. the cost of your BA in Sociology is 4x the cost, while nursing training is free; bus drivers and aged care workers get paid $35/hr, while retail assistants get minimum wage) [NB: these are just illustrations, not costed proposals]
          • Accept that we will have a long-term reduction in services (yep, you can go to your local cafe, who have plenty of staff – but there won't be health care workers in the retirement home or bus drivers)
          • bwaghorn 4.1.2.1.1

            There are several alternatives

            Keep people being productive as long as we can. No more being a total drag on society at retirement . This doesn't mean full time labour,

            Maybe face hard truths like population is the problem world wide,

            Even harder ones like stop trying to keep ever body alive for as long as possible with modern medicine.

            Banning any religion that's anti contraception

            I'm absolutely fine with corner people into careers we need,

            • SPC 4.1.2.1.1.1

              Don't worry if that is what you want the decline in home ownership will result in half the people reaching age 65 having to work to pay their rent (at the moment its more of choice – so they can afford lifestyle).

              But they will need ACC and health system help to keep them work capable … or otherwise will they have to take up the ACT offer of a way out of homelessness ….

              The alternative involves higher wages, people owning their homes and the capital/business realm investing in productivity (plant/labour replacement tech) to reduce the need for migrant labour.

            • Belladonna 4.1.2.1.1.2

              Keep people being productive as long as we can. No more being a total drag on society at retirement . This doesn't mean full time labour,

              This sounds an awful lot like support for the progressive shift of the retirement age to 67.

              Certainly in Auckland (and probably in the rest of the country, but Auckland is what I'm familiar with) a whole lot of people are hitting 65 and continuing to work. Since they can't afford to retire. Largely because they still have a mortgage to pay, or they have weekly rent which won't be covered by Super – and still allow them to eat.

              • SPC

                It's bad enough the sick get messed with on Job Seeker Benefit, it will be worse if/when the age of entitlement for Super goes up and more are unable to work till that age.

                There are ways around that

                1.payment of a benefit at a super rate for those over 60/65 who are sick

                2.payment of disability benefit at the super rate

                3.adding those sick to ACC (so ACC pays for any drugs Pharmac will not to make them work capable – to save ACC money, that is make the government system intelligent).

                4.Health gets around to setting salt/sugar standards as per cheap processed food.

      • bwaghorn 4.1.3

        Just noticed it's depopulation not deportation , bloody spell check trips me up yet again.

    • SPC 4.2

      Sunak had his own preferred approach to pandemic management.

  5. pat 5

    Having perused the embedded links in the article (snippets as they were) it appears all ignore the fundamental position of finance (money) in the 'growth' paradigm.

    No (or de) growth= no interest.

    Now consider how such a world will operate…and crucially how the transition from a growth paradigm to a degrowth paradigm will occur.

    I will suggest it will not occur by design, but that it is inevitable that it will occur.

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    The coalition government is delivering on its commitment to making principled decisions by getting rid of red tape that doesn’t make sense and allowing sick New Zealanders greater freedom and choice to purchase effective cold and flu medicines. A bill amending the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 is being introduced, and changes to the Medicines ...
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    The Coalition Government is taking early action to curb the surge in welfare dependency that occurred under the previous government by setting out its expectations around employment and the use of benefit sanctions, Social Development and Employment Minister Louise Upston says. In 2017, 60,588 sanctions were applied to beneficiaries who ...
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