Emission reductions in the 11 high-income countries that have managed to “decouple” CO2 emissions from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have been deemed insufficient to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement, according to a recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.
While politicians and the media have celebrated these countries’ achievements in decoupling emissions from economic growth as “green growth,” the study scrutinizes this claim by comparing their carbon emission reductions with what is required under the Paris Agreement.
NOTHING GREEN ABOUT ECONOMIC GROWTH
Lead author of the study, Jefim Vogel from the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, UK, has a clear stance on the matter, stating, “There is nothing green about economic growth in high-income countries.”
He emphasizes that such growth is a recipe for climate breakdown and injustice. Referring to the emission reductions achieved by these countries as ‘green growth’ is, according to Vogel, a form of green washing. To be genuinely ‘green,’ growth should align with the climate targets and fairness principles of the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, high-income countries have fallen far short of this standard and are unlikely to achieve it in the future. Continued economic growth in these countries, Vogel argues, is at odds with the crucial goals of averting catastrophic climate breakdown and ensuring fairness for lower-income nations.
The study identifies 11 high-income countries that achieved “absolute decoupling” between 2013 and 2019, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. It then compares their projected emission reductions to the “Paris-compliant” rates needed to meet their respective shares of the global carbon budget and limit global warming to either 1.5°C or 1.7°C, in line with the Paris Agreement’s targets.
Shockingly, none of these high-income countries that achieved emission decoupling are even close to meeting Paris-compliant emission reduction rates. At current rates, it would take them over 200 years on average to bring their emissions close to zero, emitting more than 27 times their fair share of the global carbon budget for 1.5°C.
The disparity between achieved and Paris-compliant emission reductions is staggering. On average, these countries achieved only a 1.6% annual reduction in emissions between 2013 and 2019. In contrast, they would need to achieve a 30% annual reduction by 2025 to meet their fair-share commitments for the 1.5°C target.
Each country falls short in different ways, with even the best-performing country, the United Kingdom, needing to increase its emission reduction rate fivefold by 2025. Other countries, such as Belgium, Australia, Austria, Canada, and Germany, would need to reduce their emissions over 30 times faster than they did between 2013 and 2019 under absolute decoupling.
Even if the less ambitious target of limiting global warming to 1.7°C were considered, countries would still need to achieve emission reductions eight times faster by 2025 than what was achieved between 2013 and 2019, making it an unrealistic goal within a growth-oriented approach.
In light of these findings, the study’s authors advocate for a “post-growth” approach instead of the pursuit of “green growth” in high-income countries. This approach involves scaling down energy-intensive and less necessary production, reducing the consumption of the wealthy, shifting from private cars to public transit, accelerating renewable energy deployment, and promoting efficiency improvements through public financing. These measures can not only reduce emissions but also enhance overall wellbeing and fairness.
The authors suggest various steps that policymakers can take to expedite emission reductions in socially beneficial ways, such as prioritizing ecological sustainability, scaling down carbon-intensive production and consumption, reducing income inequality, improving building insulation, reducing food waste, and shifting towards agro-ecological farming techniques and plant-based diets.
Jefim Vogel clarifies that transitioning from economic growth to a post-growth model is distinct from a recession, as it doesn’t entail hardships or loss of livelihoods. It focuses on securing and improving livelihoods and wellbeing without the need for economic growth.
Co-author Professor Jason Hickel concludes that the alarming climate extremes we are experiencing serve as a warning of the perilous path we are on. To prevent catastrophic climate breakdown, high-income countries should urgently embrace post-growth approaches that reduce emissions while enhancing wellbeing and fairness.
The authors note that lower-income nations, with lower emissions per capita, have a more achievable path to stay within their carbon budgets while pursuing development goals. Countries like Uruguay and Mexico are already making progress in this direction, given access to finance and technology and a development strategy cantered on human needs.
However, the study acknowledges some limitations, including the exclusion of emissions from agriculture, forestry, land use, international aviation, and shipping. Despite these challenges, it remains clear that the pursuit of “green growth” in high-income countries is insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate targets and fairness principles, necessitating a shift towards a more sustainable and equitable future.