The EU is a free market institution – it was set up as a common market, after all – and its policies all relate to growth. The Europe 2020 strategy is for smart, sustainable, inclusive growth. The Energy 2020 strategy has goals of 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, 20% energy supplied by renewables and (non-binding) 20% energy savings via energy efficiency. The EU’s strategy for sustainability is based on the idea of “decoupling” economic growth from environmental damage and resource use. It focuses on improving the economic and environmental efficiency of production and products, rather than on changing consumption.
The concept of “decoupling” economic growth from resource use (and the waste and pollution that goes with this – think of the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 as a finite resource) is based on evidence that efficiency improves over time, as prevailing technology advances. For example, energy efficiency in the EU since the 1990s has improved by around 0.5% per year. If the EU meets its energy efficiency target (which it is currently on track to miss by half) then this would increase to 1 – 1.5% improvements per year, three times as fast/ effectively as currently.
This kind of progress or relative decoupling is very far off from the absolute decoupling that would be necessary to make growth compatible with reducing our consumption/ use of resources (including the capacity of the atmosphere, oceans, forests and soils to absorb CO2). Efficiency and technology will of course have a role to play, but the political commitment to “decoupling” and sustainable growth ignores the speed with which we need to tackle climate change and reduce our emissions.
In order to stay below the internationally agreed 2 degree temperature increase (understood as a climatic tipping point to runaway climate change, because of feedback loops like melting permafrost releasing methane etc), we have to act now, quickly and deeply cutting our climate emissions, not at an efficiency increase (decreasing the carbon intensity of growth) of 0.5-1.5%. For “decoupling” to bring us the timely solution it is heralded as, efficiency improvements at every level of the economy – extraction, production, transportation, consumption and assimilation of waste and externalities – would need to occur at much higher rate. Taking into account population and income growth, Tim Jackson has estimated that the economy would need to become less carbon-intensive at a rate more like 7-11% per year, globally, not just in Europe. And there is no evidence that this is possible, either technologically, politically or socially.
Market analysis just released shows that Europe’s CO2 emissions are growing with the economy. ‘Europe’s CO2 emissions picked up speed as the continent’s economies emerged from recession in 2010, finishing 2-4% higher than a year before’.
Jackson concludes that those who ‘promote decoupling as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence – and at the basic arithmetic of growth.’ His analysis ‘suggests that it is entirely fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ emission and resource cuts can be achieved without confronting the structure of market economies’.
So the question QCEA wants to ask is, can we talk about sustainability without starting to question the role of economic growth? Let QCEA know your opinion and answer our poll.