Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability Are Compatible
Earlier this month, activists from Greenpeace protested during a speech by Prime Minister Liz Truss in which she announced the U.K. government would lift a ban on fracking for shale gas to alleviate the energy shortage. They held up a sign with a question: “Who voted for this?”
Are they kidding? Or are they actually so delusional they can’t imagine a voter who wants more energy, not less?
Sadly, these protesters are indicative of a growing chorus of degrowth activists, who believe climate change can only be solved by dismantling capitalism, shrinking the global economy, and limiting our supply of energy.
This backwards thinking — that somehow less energy is good for humanity — not only hinders our ability to curb emissions; it would drag billions of people back into abject poverty.
Energy is the lifeblood of modern society. Without it, we would still be living in the dark ages — figuratively and literally. We’ve seen what happens when reliable energy is taken for granted: Europe will almost certainly experience rolling blackouts this winter in the face of natural gas shortages driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To stave off future energy crises like the one facing Europe, we need an abundance of energy, not a scarcity.
More energy also helps us combat climate change and ensure that an exponentially growing human population can live prosperously. To power our world and repair the environment in tandem, we need an all-of-the-above energy mix: cheap solar and wind, efficient hydropower and geothermal, backed by scaleable, reliable baseload nuclear energy. We can reduce emissions and provide energy for a growing population through economic growth, not despite it.
According to the Bank of England, for almost 3,000 years until 1750, GDP growth per capita averaged only 0.01% per year. The global standard of living was more or less static during this time. But then, thanks to capitalist market structures, the Industrial Revolution happened, and since 1750, the average GDP growth per capita has been 1.5% per year. The average time it takes the economy to double now is around 50 years; before the Industrial Revolution, it would’ve taken 6,000 years.
The abundance of energy and associated technologies brought about by the Industrial Revolution markedly improved the quality of life for nearly all humans. It’s estimated that in 1820, 94% of the world was living in extreme poverty. In 2017, just 9.2% of the world fell into that category. GDP growth is significantly related to a reduction in poverty — yet degrowthers still seek to stifle it.
A core tenet of degrowth is the belief that humankind would be better off if we were to consume a smaller amount of energy. One study touted by degrowthers claims that a “decent life” could be provided to the world’s population at just 40% of global energy consumption. This belief runs counter to the fact that there is a direct correlation between energy consumption and a country’s Human Development Index (HDI). The correlation is the same as with GDP growth: when energy consumption increases, HDI increases as a result.
GDP growth and energy consumption are both positively correlated with reductions in poverty, yet degrowthers seek to draw back both in an attempt to curb harmful emissions. It’s entirely possible for a country to curb emissions, however, while simultaneously growing GDP.
From 2005 to 2019, 32 countries at least partially “decoupled” — that is, their economies grew while their emissions fell, thanks in large part to widely-available clean energy technologies. And it’s not just developed nations that were able to decouple: developing countries like El Salvador, Jamaica, and Belarus successfully grew their economies without raising emissions.
There is also virtually no reason why energy consumption needs to be cut if clean energy becomes the most commonly-used energy source worldwide. The argument against lowering energy consumption is that increased energy consumption causes a rise in emissions. But clean energy sources — solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and nuclear — produce power without emissions, and their supplies are theoretically limitless. If we were to utilize breeder reactors, which generate nuclear fuel at the same time as electricity, along with existing supplies of uranium and thorium, we could power humanity for 4 billion years.
Clean energy isn’t just for wealthy countries, either. Since 2018, developing countries have built more clean energy capacity than fossil fuel. And developing countries like China and India — the world’s first and third largest sources of emissions, respectively — are building more nuclear reactors right now than any other country. China is building 21; India has 8 under construction.
There is more than enough clean energy to power the world — let’s stop pretending that we have to regress as a species to save the environment. Pursuing a policy of clean energy abundance by incentivizing free market investment can enable us to continue decreasing emissions and lifting billions out of poverty.
Benjamin Khoshbin is an energy and environment fellow with the American Conservation Coalition and Young Voices.
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