Climate Futures: Renewable Energy vs. Technologies of Degrowth

A look at the plausibility of separating economic growth from renewable energy roll out.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global society (with an emphasis on wealthier nations) needs to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45 percent by 2030 in order to avoid what it refers to as a “catastrophic warming” of 2°C above preindustrial levels. Many other climate scientists argue that even this projection isn’t radical enough, with some researchers arguing that the planet’s carbon budget is nearly already spent, that at least 2°C of warming are already locked-in, and that we are surely in for a much hotter future.

To address the crisis, some environmentalists are calling for a widespread rollout of renewable technologies, such as wind and solar energy systems, at a scale and speed previously unprecedented. The assumption is that, by doing so, we can not only remove the threat of GHGs warming our atmosphere beyond livable levels but also maintain economic growth.

Here we look at this concept of “green growth” and whether it is possible to increase an industrialized country’s gross domestic product (GDP) while decoupling it absolutely from resource use and emissions. In other words, is it possible to save the planet while maintaining our way of life?

If not and we have to “degrow” the economies of wealthy nations historically responsible for an outsized share of global emissions, what will technology look like in an economically shrunken world?

What Is Decoupling?

Typically, businesses under the dominant economic paradigm exclude relationships related to the goods and services they deliver from the market cost of those goods and services, dubbing those relationships, such as their impact on the environment or the health of their workers, “externalities.” However, the current ecological crisis global society now faces demonstrates that those environmental and social costs add up to the point where the entire planet and its inhabitants are at risk.

Decoupling GDP from resource use and emissions. (Image courtesy of cycled.)

Decoupling GDP from resource use and emissions. (Image courtesy of cycled.)

In 2011, the UN’s International Resource Panel(IRP) reported that humanity would use up 140 billion tons of biomass, fossil fuels, ores and minerals—more than three times its then-current rate. For that reason, the IRPurged nations to separate, or decouple, their economic growth from their ecological impact.

There are thought to be two types of decoupling, relative and absolute. In the former case, ecological impact per unit of economic input decreases, so that resource use and emissions increase at a slower rate than GDP. Absolute decoupling occurs when ecological impact is either stable or decreases as GDP grows.

Is Green Growth Possible?

Proponents of some renewable energy rollout programs, such as the Green New Deal, argue that it is possible to achieve “green growth” through decoupling. We can theorize that it would be possible to decouple an increase in GDP from GHG emissions by replacing our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable technologies so that every coal fire, natural gas and oil-based power plant became a solar or wind farm.

We might also imagine glue-laminated wood beams being used in place of all new concrete for construction. Gas-guzzling automobiles and jets might be supplanted by electrically driven planes, cars, trucks and trains. Petro-plastics would have to be swapped out for bioplastics. Humans might stop eating meat, and synthetic fertilizers could be replaced with compost.

Though these are lofty goals, achieving them is not out of the realm of possibility. Achieving them quickly enough to meet the projected timeline associated with catastrophic warming is a different story. To cut emissions by nearly half by 2030, while maintaining current economic growth rates, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel estimates that we would need “decarbonize the economy at a rate of 11 percent per year. For perspective, that’s more than five times faster than the historic rate of decarbonization and about three times faster than what scientists project is possible even under highly optimistic conditions. If we roll out a towering carbon tax and massive subsidies for clean energy, we might be able to decarbonize by 3 to 4 percent per year, but that’s nowhere near fast enough.”

Even if we were able to decarbonize at such high rates, there is another issue sometimes lost in the climate crisis discourse: resource use. It may be hypothetically possible to decouple GHG emissions from GDP growth, but we would have to find a way to decrease the amount of minerals, ores and biomass we consume. The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that about 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction due to human activities.

Though we’d like to think that decoupling resource use from GDP growth is possible, scientific research suggests that this is not the case. One research group ran simulations on resource consumption based on current levels (70 billion metric tons per year) and best-practice resource use with GDP increases of 2 to 3 percent per year.

The former model found that humanity would be using 180 billion metric tons of fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals and fossil fuels per year by 2050. The idealistic scenario, in which every country used resources efficiently, saw consumption increase to a more modest 93 billion metric tons. Both cases are well beyond what is considered a sustainable level of 50 billion metric tons per year.

Another study simulated a situation in which all countries were applying environmental practices that were seen as even better than sustainable, including a carbon tax ranging from $50 to $236 per metric ton and the deployment of yet-to-be-invented technologies that would double resource efficiency. The research found that, even with global economic growth of 3 percent annually, humanity would still achieve 95 billion metric tons of consumption by 2050, similar to the previous study.

In 2017, the UN Environment Program, which had advocated for green growth in the past, simulated a scenario in which carbon was taxed at $573, resource extraction was taxed, and new technologies were quickly developed. These researchers projected that humanity would reach 132 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050, in part because the research team included a “rebound effect,” in which increases in resource efficiency drove down the prices of goods, thus increasing demand.

What these studies suggest is that, while there is no reason green growth is impossible, evidence lends weight to the idea that it is nearly impossible to achieve. This is particularly important when the stakes of the climate crisis are so high. Rather than roll the dice with mother nature, it would be prudent to take the necessary precautions to remain within the planet’s ecological limits.

To do this, some advocates of degrowth believe that nations, especially wealthy ones, should impose legal limits on resource use and waste, lowering those limits year by year until global society falls within ecological boundaries. Not only would such a strategy drive humanity back into sustainable living, but it would also allow green growth experts to demonstrate how to develop the technologies they believe could save the planet in the green growth scenario—those that increase efficiency and improve standards of living. Controlled degrowth would also be an alternative to forced degrowth, which would be imposed by rapid economic collapse in the face of a confluence of ecological crises.

Technologies of Degrowth

If degrowth were to be implemented in industrialized nations (with a heavier burden on richer, more resource-intensive ones), what would become of all of the technology we know and love? Necessarily, the most energy-intensive technologies and resource-intensive industries would have to be limited, but that doesn’t mean that innovation as a whole would cease completely. In fact, given the constraints imposed by possible degrowth policies, innovation would be essential.

Degrowth advocates have begun to more closely study the types of technologies that would be adopted in a world of reduced energy and resource use. They range from the extremely low-tech to more advanced than even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest conglomerates have yet developed.

One paper from the University of Melbourne lists a number of tools for “‘simple living’ practices” that“could help increase household resilience” because an “individual, household or community either chooses a reduced-energy way of life, motivated by climate change mitigation, or has such a way of life imposed upon them due to declining fossil fuel availability or economic disruption.” In contrast to hi-tech options, such as solar panels, electric vehicles and new energy-efficient appliances, the authors suggest low-energy alternatives, such as:

  • Low-tech transport: walking and cycling
  • Low-tech hot water: solar shower bags
  • Low-tech thermal comfort: dressing appropriately in a well-insulated house
  • Low-tech clothes washing: hand-washing and using a clothesline
  • Low-tech entertainment: powering down the electronics

The authors don’t mean these to be solutions for everyone everywhere, acknowledging that climates vary from place to place and that many people are “locked in” to certain activities, such as driving to work. Instead, the importance is placed on the mindset of highly consumer-oriented cultures being shifted toward simpler living.

Such cultural changes can be carried over to the way we look at slightly more hi-tech degrowth solutions. An article from RWTH Aachen University and the Technical University of Berlin describes community-oriented innovations such as crowdsourcing, mass customization, 3D printing and web-based user interfaces for co-creation as potential tools for reducing over production, increasing the meaningful lifespan of products and promoting sustainable consumption.

The Fairphone features a modular architecture so that parts can be more easily repaired or replaced. Though “right to repair” laws were killed in 20 U.S. states in 2018, they have passed in the EU and will take effect starting in 2021. (Image courtesy of Fairphone.)

The Fairphone features a modular architecture so that parts can be more easily repaired or replaced. Though “right to repair” laws were killed in 20 U.S. states in 2018, they have passed in the EU and will take effect starting in 2021. (Image courtesy of Fairphone.)

3D printing and mass customization have the potential to reduce inventory, allowing manufacturers to produce items on demand, only when needed. Going along with these solutions are co-creation and crowdsourcing, which the authors argue could ensure that only goods that are actually desired head to market. 3D printing can also be used for distributed fabrication, making goods closer to their point of use and, thus, reducing energy associated with shipping.

A paper from Osnabrueck University used the case of the Fairphone as a possible model for technology in an age of degrowth. Noting that the average lifespan of a smartphone is roughly 12 months—far shorter than most electronic devices—author Franziska Verena Haucke highlights the business practices of European firm Fairphone as a possible alternative to traditional consumption.

The company attempts to demonstrate transparency in terms of its supply chain, fair trade with regard to the parts and materials used in the phone, fair wages for both its own workers and those of its sourcing partners, and repairability of its products. In particular, this last element shows how advanced technology can be designed in such a way that broken components can be easily fixed or replaced, with Fairphone relying on modularity for ease of access and part replacement.

Greek nonprofit Nea Guinea has created the prototype for a 500 W locally manufactured picohydroelectric plant that satisfies all energy needs of the residents apart from cooking. (Image courtesy of the Journal of Cleaner Production.)

Greek nonprofit Nea Guinea has created the prototype for a 500 W locally manufactured picohydroelectric plant that satisfies all energy needs of the residents apart from cooking. (Image courtesy of the Journal of Cleaner Production.)

Other technologies being explored by the degrowth community include 3D-printed medical devices, small-scale renewable energy systems, a small-scale hydrogen cell electric car and appropriating existing technologies(such as enterprise resource planning software) currently deployed for unsustainable ends and using them sustainably.

The viability or practicality of each of these proposals is beyond the scope of this article, but they demonstrate that the concept of degrowth does not mean the exclusion of technology or necessarily meager living standards. Instead, most degrowth advocates frame a society in which degrowth is adopted as one of social abundance—in which workdays are shortened and free time is spent participating in one’s community and enjoying time with loved ones—rather than one dominated by the commodification of basic necessities and the artificial scarcity of material goods.