Degrowth and the Carbon Budget: Powerdown Strategies for Climate Stability

I’ve just published a new Simplicity Institute Report, called “Degrowth and the Carbon Budget: Powerdown Strategies for Climate Stability.” I’ve posted the introduction below and the full paper is available here.


In recent years the notion of a ‘carbon budget’ has entered the lexicon of climate science (e.g. IPCC, 2013; Meinshausen et al, 2009). This concept refers to the estimated maximum amount of carbon emissions that can be released into the atmosphere in order to retain a reasonable chance of keeping global temperature levels below a 2°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. This is the global temperature threshold reaffirmed during the Copenhagen conference in 2009 but which many climate scientists argue should be revised downward (see, e.g., Jordan et al, 2013). Although the science underpinning the carbon budget is increasingly robust (see Le Quere et al, 2013), many scientists, politicians, and the broader public have been slow to recognise its radical socio-economic and political implications.

In order to keep within a ‘safe’ temperature threshold, deep and rapid decarbonisation is required, and yet existing trends show that global emissions are still growing rapidly. According to the most recent IPPC report (2013), the world’s carbon budget could be entirely used up within 15-25 years, a scenario that would almost certainly lock the world into a future that is 2°C warmer, and more likely 4°C or 6°C degrees warmer (Christoff, 2013; Potsdam Institute, 2012). The consequences and risks of the current ‘business as usual’ scenario highlight the urgency with which deep decarbonisation must take place.

Given what is at stake here – the viability of the planet for human civilisation – carbon budget analyses need to become the basis for climate policies around the world, for they provide the most scientifically rigorous grounds for understanding the full extent of the climate challenge and what would constitute an appropriate response. The logic of the carbon budget numbers, however, leads to conclusions that most people, including most climate policy makers, refuse to accept, acknowledge, or understand. Most significantly, as outlined in this paper, the carbon budget arithmetic indicates that rapid decarbonisation may well be incompatible with continuation of current global economic growth trends and paradigms. In fact, even more challengingly, carbon budget analysis seems to imply that in the most highly developed regions of the world, keeping within the carbon budget will require ‘degrowth’ strategies of significantly reduced energy and resource consumption. This broad line of argument has been made often by degrowth scholars in recent years, but the latest carbon budget analyses are providing the degrowth position with compelling new scientific support.

Degrowth has been defined as ‘an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions’ (Schneider et al, 2010: 512). In a supplementary way, Serge Latouche (2014a: 211) has defined degrowth as

a societal project of transforming industrial and market societies into socially and ecologically sustainable societies of frugal abundance. Its principle aim is to dismantle a widely shared belief in the productivist model of development – that is, the ideology of unlimited economic growth – and to reconstruct industrial societies according to the ideal of ecological democracy.

By emphasising the need for contraction of the economy in the most developed nations, degrowth can be understood as a transitional phase that would ultimately stabilise in a steady-state economy that operates within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet (see e.g. Daly and Farley, 2004). Within those ecological limits of significantly reduced energy and material throughput requirements, the art of living, of course, could forever improve and evolve.

Like the notion of a steady-state economy, degrowth is not necessarily tied to notions of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but is fundamentally a biophysical macroeconomic concept with profound socio-political implications, which leaves room for increased wellbeing even if GDP declines. Degrowth, therefore – which refers to planned economic contraction – must be distinguished from recession, which signifies unplanned economic contraction. From within a degrowth paradigm, there is no reason why planned reduction of energy and resource consumption cannot be associated with increased wellbeing, if the transition is negotiated wisely. This creates conceptual space for ‘economic degrowth’ to be contrasted with ‘uneconomic growth’ (see Alexander, 2012a; Kallis et al, 2012; Kubiszewski, et al. 2013), which is the space within which this paper is situated.

This paper begins by examining the key conclusions of the carbon budget research literature and unpacking some of the assumptions that frame the various decarbonisation scenarios. After doing so, the paper builds on the work of climate scientists, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, who have led the climate science analysis of the implications of carbon budgets on economic growth goals and polices. Although Anderson and Bows have been insightful enough to see (and brave enough to acknowledge) that meeting carbon budget targets implies a rapid shift to degrowth strategies, particularly in the most developed economies, they have not yet provided a detailed discussion of the ways in which degrowth strategies might be integrated with the broader decarbonisation policy agenda. In the final sections of this paper, therefore, an attempt is made to contribute to this discussion by outlining the main elements of an integrated socio-economic and political strategy consistent with keeping emissions within the confines of the carbon budget.

The full paper is available here.

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