Thursday, 1 March 2012

The UNFCCC & the Myth of Absolute Decoupling

Back in 2009 I put a huge amount of time and effort and energy into trying to push for a fair, ambitious and binding international deal on climate change at Copenhagen. However I’ve lost a lot of the confidence I once had in what the UNFCCC can deliver – not only in terms of managing to set meaningful targets that match the science, but also in terms of nations then managing to meet those targets.

The UNFCCC’s commitment to continued economic growth seems to me to make actually achieving reductions in global emissions next to impossible.

On the second to last day of Copenhagen I went to see Tim Jackson speak about his new book – Prosperity without Growth. In the context of Copenhagen the main focus of his talk that day was the 'myth of economic decoupling'.

Economic decoupling is what economists use to explain how we can simultaneously cut our emissions and grow our economy. It relies on the notion that we can decouple growth of throughput/resource use/carbon emission from growth of GDP by increasing efficiency (which appeals to conventional economics because increasing efficiency is what capitalism is supposed to do best).

So what evidence is there for this? Well, relative decoupling – where carbon emissions grow more slowly than the economy - has been achieved by a fair number of states, including the UK, to a limited extent.

Relative decoupling is definitely a good start, but for us to actually reduce emissions overall we need to achieve absolute decoupling – or in other words efficiency must increase fast enough to offset both rising population and rising incomes – and must continue to do so...forever.

Or as Tim Jackson summaries: “Nowhere is there any evidence that efficiency can outrun – and continue to outrun – scale [of throughput] in the way it must do if growth is to be compatible with sustainability”

Why is this so significant? Because it means that the supposedly magic ‘get out of jail free’ card of absolute decoupling that would allow us to tackle climate change without revising our current economic system will not work.

So even if, by some miracle, we get targets set in 2015 that match the science, they will not be met unless we re-wire our economy (or I supposed the other option is endless recession, but that doesn’t hold much appeal)

And yet economic growth is one of those untouchable, unquestionable, non-negotiable assumptions in international politics and policymaking, including international climate conferences where it doesn’t get any serious consideration.

Or at least it never used. Amazingly Connie Hedegaard – EU Commissioner for Climate Action and the woman hailed as the hero of the Durban talks – came out last week urging nations to use Rio20 to overhaul idea of growth. Warning that the world must use RIO20 “to change forever the current damaging model of economic growth, or face future crises as severe as the one currently enveloping the eurozone.”(Harvey, 2012)

So maybe I can allow myself a little more hope in international environmentally policy. I’d like to think so. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself.

The date of RIO20 had to be changed because of fears that 54 Commonwealth leaders would not attend due to it clashing with the queens diamond jubilee (Gersmann, 2012) - that doesn’t leave me with a whole lot of confidence that the majority of world leaders and policy makers have an accurate perspective on the urgency of our current situation, or will give any real consideration to the idea that we need to overhaul the prevailing economic wisdom in order to tackle climate change.