Originally published by The/Rules
Here’s the magic number: 50 billion tons.
That’s how much of the Earth’s materials and life forms we can safely use each year, without destroying the web of life. That includes everything from wood to plastic, fish to livestock, minerals to metals: all the physical stuff that we consume.
Right now, we’re using about 80 billion tons each year – way over the limit. So for growth to be green, we need to somehow get back down to 50 billion tons despite expanding GDP.
When green growth theory was first mooted, there was no evidence on whether it would actually work – it was purely speculative. But over the past few years, three major studies have set out to examine this question.
A team of scientists led by Monika Dittrich ran a model showing that under business-as-usual conditions, growth will drive global resource use to a staggering 180 billion tons per year by 2050. At well over three times the safe limit, that means game over for human civilization as we know it.
Then the team ran the model with the optimistic assumption that every nation on Earth immediately adopts best practice in efficiency, with all the best available technology. The results were a bit better: we would end up hitting 93 billion tons per year by 2050. But that’s not absolute decoupling, and it’s a far cry from anything approaching green growth.
A second team of scientists tested the same question again in 2016. They chose a different approach: they put a price on carbon rising to $250 per ton, and assumed that we double our efficiency with rapid tech innovation. The results were almost exactly the same. If we keep growing the global economy by 3% each year – which is what the World Bank and IMP say is required to stop this economic house of cards from collapsing – they found that we’ll still hit about 95 billion tons by 2050. No absolute decoupling. No green growth.
Finally, last year the UN Environment Program itself – one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory – weighed in on the debate, hoping to settle the matter once and for all. They modelled a carbon price rising to a whopping $573 per ton, slapped on a material extraction tax, and assumed rapid tech innovation spurred by strong government policy. The results? We hit 132 billion tons by 2050 – even worse than the two previous studies found. Worse because this time the scientists included the “rebound effect” in their model. As gains in efficiency reduce the cost of commodities, demand for those commodities goes up, cancelling out some of the reductions in material use.
And let’s not forget: all three of these models use radically optimistic assumptions. We’re a long way from even testing a global carbon tax, much less a tax of $573 per ton; and we’re not on track to double our efficiency. In fact, quite the opposite: right now our efficiency is getting worse, not better.
We cannot rely on the myth of ‘green growth’. It’s trustworthy as ‘healthy cigarettes’ or ‘clean coal’.
So it’s time to make room for new systems to emerge- systems that don’t require endless exponential growth just to stay afloat.
There are lots of ways to get there.
We could start by ditching GDP as an indicator of success in favor of a more balanced measure like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which accounts for negative “externalities” like pollution and material depletion. We could roll out a new money system that doesn’t pump our system full of interest-bearing debt. And we could start thinking about putting caps on material use, so that we never extract more than the Earth can regenerate.
The old generation of innovators believed that tech would allow us to subdue nature and bend it to our will. Our generation is waking up to a more hopeful truth: that our survival depends not on domination, but on harmony.