With Britain’s economy slipping into a double dip recession there is an urgent need to stimulate economic growth. This is widely seen as a panacea that will save us from austerity but can the pursuit of economic growth deliver the future we want?

The post-war period saw many nations equating economic growth with progress driven by technological innovation. While capitalism and the quest for economic growth have produced many benefits, this has come at a cost to the natural environment which is often not reflected in the balance sheet. The expansion of the production of good and services has required large amounts of labour, materials, energy and capital. Economic production has produced pollution and waste, degraded natural habitats and depleted natural resources to an extent that our future survival is now under threat.

In 2008 the world experienced multiple crises with regard to finance, fuel and food that contributed to the worst international economic recession since the 1930s Great Depression. The global financial crisis led to global per capita income contracting and the volume of world trade declining. It demonstrated serious flaws in our current western economic model of development and highlighted the need to reconsider the principles that have guided our economic policy making.

It is now time to think again about economic growth and how we actually measure it. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been used as a key indicator to measure the sum of all goods and services produced in a country over time. However, this national indicator of economic progress does not consider inequality, pollution or damage to people’s health and the environment. Critics have called for GDP to be replaced with new indicators that better measure how our national policies can truly deliver a better quality of life for all.

Economic debate has tended to imply a choice has to be made between going green or going for growth. Yet we have no choice if we are to address simultaneously the current crises in global economic and environmental systems. The traditional pursuit for growth has expanded the economy to such a size that it now must conform to global environmental constraints.

Further growth will be uneconomic because it will produce more social and environmental costs than it does benefits. The only option is for ‘green’ growth that meets the dual objectives of economic growth and environmental protection with a focus on better outcomes not more outputs – a shift from quantity to quality.

In Prosperity Without Growth Tim Jackson argues that this will require a different kind of economy for a different kind of prosperity – one where human beings can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Our growth economy is driven by the consumption and production of novelty which locks society into an iron cage of consumerism. Change at the personal and societal level is necessary to make the transition to a new form of prosperity that does not depend on unrelenting growth.

In June world leaders were called upon to commit to a revolutionary paradigm shift from traditional quantity-oriented fossil fuel dependent growth towards green growth. More than 100 heads of State and government attended the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero to shape new policies to promote prosperity, reduce poverty and advance social equity and environmental protection. The Summit marked twenty years since the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit that set out the framework to address climate change and implement sustainable development into practice.

A transition towards a greener economy requires long-term sustainable growth and the efficient use of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, and eradication of poverty. This will require developing a green economy in the UK and working at an international level to tackle long term challenges.

In the short-term the transition to a green economy will involve additional costs and difficult choices. We will need to transform what we produce and how we produce it and take advantage of resource efficiencies. This will be achieved by using new technologies and adopting different ways of living and working, and investing in infrastructure. All economic sectors will need to grow without undermining the capacity of the environment to support our future quality of life. They will need to develop greater resilience to future environmental challenges such as climate change, material, energy and food insecurity and natural disasters.

The transition to a green economy will allow businesses to benefit from resources efficiencies and market opportunities and contribute to creating new green jobs. UK business could save as much as £23 billion a year through efficiency savings by improving the way they use energy and water, and by reducing waste. In addition, they could take advantage of the global market for environmental goods and services which has been estimated to be worth about £2.27 trillion, with forecasts predicting 4 per cent growth on an annual basis.

However, a recent report by the Institute Public Policy Research (IPPR) examined the views of over one hundred British industries on the transition to a green economy, particularly in the energy, transport and manufacturing sectors. Despite David Cameron’s Coalition government claiming to be the greenest government ever, IPPR found that industry was critical of the Coalition due to a perceived disconnect between the rhetoric of ministers and the policies they were pursuing.

Recent policy changes such as the feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaic installations were seen as shifting the goal posts and doing little to maintain business and investor confidence in the green growth agenda. The report highlighted the need for policymakers to taken on a more active role in addressing the barriers to green growth faced by many manufacturing and energy-intensive industries.

Greening the economy will undoubtedly be good for business, people and the planet. The Earth Summit resulted in the International community simply affirming the need to achieve a green economy. However, the rhetoric contained in the final report of the conference needs to be matched by action. Clear financial incentives are need to encourage greener investment and behaviour in government, businesses and consumers.

If we are to create the future we want we need to need to develop a new form of prosperity that is not dependent on continual growth. Fundamental change to the structure of society and the market economy is needed if real environmental gains are to be achieved. Change on the scale achieved in the industrial revolution is required driven by clean, efficient and sustainable renewable energy technologies. The only solution to austerity is to ensure the UK is firmly placed at the forefront of this new global green revolution.

© Gary Haq 2012

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