Opinion: can the “anti-growth” of the world economy save the planet?

    16 Jun 2021

    Will the planet be saved by the “anti-growth” of the world economy? The idea looks tempting, but some experts prove that it’s wrong. Let’s check Knife arguments against it.

    Supporters of the idea of anti-growth believe that the main reason for environmental pollution is the irrepressible desire of mankind for economic development and enrichment. Andrew McAfee, a leading researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Wired magazine, refutes this point of view: in his opinion, only an increase in economic power will help us introduce technologies and laws that help reduce environmental harm.

    For half a century, we have been told that giving up economic and demographic growth is the only way to save the planet. All this time, the population of the Earth continued to grow at an unprecedented rate.

    And suddenly something unexpected and reassuring happened: the world’s richest countries have reduced their ecological footprint. Today they pollute the air less, consume less water and extract fewer natural resources. These trends are also observed in some less developed countries.

    However, many supporters of the concept of anti-growth refuse to believe in what happened. Of course, it is possible and necessary to discuss the future of the planet, but something else is taking place here. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It’s hard to get a person to understand something when they get paid to not understand it.” Some people blindly believe that slowing growth is humanity’s only option, and they don’t want to change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them.

    The evidence suggests that the past 50 years have been a period of growth, not anti-growth. Moreover, growth during this period was more rapid than at any time in history, with the exception of the first 25 years after the end of World War II. From 1800 to 1945, for example, the world economy grew at an average rate of less than 1.5% per year. From 1970 to 2019, this figure was 3.5%.

    Naturally, as the economy grew, so did the ecological footprint of each country. After all, the more people and the better off they are, the more they consume, and the production of new goods and services requires resources and leads to environmental pollution. The relationship between progress and environmental damage seems clear.

    Reducing, not exporting pollution

    However, after 1970, the opposite pattern emerged: growth continued, while environmental damage declined. This trend originated in rich countries.

    For example, in the United States, the total emissions of the six most common air pollutants decreased by 77%, while GDP grew by 285%, and the country’s population grew by 60%. In the UK, annual air emissions of particulate matter fell by 75% from 1970 to 2016 and chemical pollutants by 85%. A similar picture is observed in other wealthy countries.

    How did they manage to achieve this? There are two options: cleaning and offshoring. Either rich countries have switched to green production or they have moved most of their production overseas. The first of these ways reduces the pollution of the planet, the second only redistributes it.

    Evidence suggests that rich countries have cut pollution far more than they exported it. One of the main sources of air pollution, cars and power plants, of course, had not gone anywhere. Most of the industry is still concentrated in rich countries. Both the US and the UK are producing more than 50 years ago, and Germany has had a positive trade balance since 2000, despite the fact that the rate of air pollution has been steadily declining.

    Rich countries have reduced air pollution levels not through slower growth or offshoring, but through new environmental legislation.

    As economists Joseph Shapiro and Reed Walker wrote in their 2018 report, “Much of the reduction in emissions is not achieved through reduced productivity and trade, but through changes in environmental law.”

    The United States and other wealthy countries do import huge amounts of products from China and other countries with higher levels of pollution. But if international trade did not exist and rich countries could rely only on their own industries, the level of air and water pollution would still be much lower than 50 years ago.

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    The 2004 Economic and Political Advances report says: “There is no evidence that polluting goods produced in the United States are being replaced by imported goods.”

    The destruction of the relationship between economic growth and ecosystem pollution in rich countries, and more recently in China, is an inconvenient fact for the supporters of the concept of anti-growth.

    Based on manufacturing and exports, China’s economy is growing at an astronomical rate, but thanks to the government’s efforts from 2013 to 2017, air pollution in densely populated areas of the country fell by more than 30%.

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    The progress China has made is encouraging, but it came as no surprise to most economists, as it fits perfectly with the Kuznets ecological curve. According to the hypothesis put forward by Simon Kuznets, with the growth of GDP, the state of the environment at the initial stage is rapidly deteriorating, but then a turning point occurs – and the level of pollution begins to decrease. Rich countries support this hypothesis.

    It is worth paying attention to the number of deaths caused by air pollution. According to Our World in Data website, “The number of deaths in wealthy countries — Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and South Korea — has declined in the past. But it has also begun to decline recently in middle-income countries such as China and Brazil. At the same time, deaths have increased in low-income countries. ”

    The Kuznets ecological curve refutes the idea, which is key to the concept of anti-growth, that the negative impact on the environment inevitably increases with the growth of the population and the development of the economy.

    It is no coincidence that the supporters of this concept prefer to keep silent about the significant reduction in the level of air and water pollution in many countries of the world, focusing on only one type of pollution – carbon dioxide emissions.

    They argue that much of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in rich countries is due to offshoring. If you look at the data from the Global Carbon Project, which has calculated consumption-related emissions in many countries since 1990, you can verify their words.

    The graphs of consumption-related carbon emissions in some of the world’s richest countries, including Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, look like the familiar inverted Kuznets U-shaped curve. In the United States, for example, carbon emissions have declined by a total of 13% since 2007.

    At the same time, the reduction in emissions was not the result of even new legislation, but a combination of technological progress and market forces. Solar and wind energy have become more affordable and have supplanted coal. Natural gas, which emits less greenhouse gases when burned than coal (even taking into account methane emissions), has also become much cheaper in the United States thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology.

    To ensure further reductions in greenhouse gases, we must learn from past successes. In particular, we must make it expensive to produce carbon dioxide, because only then will companies begin to reduce emissions.

    This can be achieved by introducing a carbon tax. In 2018, William Nordhaus received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his carbon dividend idea, and more than 3,500 economists have signed an open letter calling for its implementation in the United States. The time for this idea has come.

    How the United States reduced its negative impact on the planet

    Thanks to technological advances and price pressures, we are not only ditching coal, but less exploiting the planet as a whole. That is, the Kuznets curve expresses not only the level of pollution.

    A prime example of how you can get more with less resources is American agriculture.

    Harvest tonnage in the United States is growing steadily: in 2015 it was 55% higher than in 1980. During this period, the amount of water used for irrigation decreased by 18%, and the area of arable land by 7%. Thus, in 35 years, yields have increased by more than 50%, while the area of farmland has decreased by more than 94,000 km², which is comparable to that of Indiana, and the amount of water saved annually is equal to the volume of Lake Champlain.

    All this was not achieved thanks to fertilizers. In 2014, only 2% more fertilizer was used in the United States than in 1980.

    Particular attention should be paid to nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium fertilizers – the most common type of fertilizer. According to the US Geological Survey, their use has declined by 23% since 1980. But some adherents of the concept of anti-growth argue that this change, too, is illusory.

    The US Geological Survey monitors the production, import and export of nitrogen-phosphorus-potash fertilizers, and from this data calculates their annual consumption, which has decreased by 16% since its peak in 1998. This is an eloquent example of dematerialization.

    Dematerialization occurs for one simple reason: resources cost money that companies are in no hurry to spend; at the same time, technological progress allows us to produce more at a lower cost.

    Forest products are another example of dematerialization in the United States. Annual domestic consumption of paper and paperboard peaked in 1999 and wood in 2002. Since then, those numbers have dropped by 20%. Is it possible that the reason is offshoring? Unlikely. The United States has been selling more forest products than it has bought since 2009 and is one of the largest exporters of forest products in the world.

    Weak arguments

    Anti-growth proponent Jason Hickel makes the outdated argument that dematerialization has no environmental benefits. He has repeatedly stated that dematerialization is just a consequence of ignoring offshoring. But the calculations contain data on the import and export of raw materials! Yes, Hickel counters, but they do not take into account the industry’s real “raw material footprint.”

    Here the arguments for anti-growth lose all connection with reality. In the article “Material footprint of peoples”, which Hickel refers to, it is said that the existing data “does not reflect the actual movement of raw materials within and between countries.”

    The models used to estimate the raw material footprint take into account the total weight of raw materials used in the production of goods: ore from which the metal is mined; rocks from which gravel is obtained; sand from which glass is made.

    Thus, a country’s raw material footprint always exceeds the direct consumption of raw materials. This is logical. However, according to the article “Material footprint of peoples”, the raw material footprint of rich countries grows even when consumption decreases.

    How is this possible? Footprint models show the consumption of raw materials in finished products as accurately as the USGS estimates. The Supplement to the Global Commodity Movement Database says that, like the US Geological Survey, “manufactured goods are not counted.” The main reason, the article says, is “the rise in the use of building materials.”

    But there is also very little data on the movement of these materials. As reported in the Supplement:

    “Most countries do not have data on the extraction of nonmetallic minerals used in construction, and even when such data are available, they are usually unreliable.”

    It is foolish to disprove reliable data on the basis of unreliable data, but this is what Hickel does.

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    His arguments are based on rough figures from China, but China is not a major exporter of building materials. China’s main exports are electrical appliances, plastic products, furniture, clothing and machinery. All this contains very little sand, gravel, stone and clay.

    So why do so many of these building materials end up in China’s exports? The fact is that the PRC is building many factories, railways and highways. The raw material footprint is calculated by taking into account the total tonnage of materials needed to build the infrastructure, and approximately one third is then recorded as export.

    It turns out that smartphones and solar panels imported from China “contain” some of the stone and gravel used in the construction of facilities this year. Following this logic, if my neighbors give me a cake in the same year they make a renovation, then my consumption of wood, drywall and copper will automatically increase.

    Hickel goes on to argue that 50 billion tons is the maximum permissible volume of natural resource extraction, and we have already exceeded it long ago. According to him, “the only way out is to legally restrict the extraction of raw materials.”

    However, the article to which he refers states that “there is no reliable scientific evidence to support the connection between the extraction of natural resources and the possible disruption of the life-supporting functions of the biosphere.”

    Only forward?

    Humanity has come a long way towards a longer and happier life. As a result, we have caused tremendous damage to our planet.

    But lately we have learned to develop in such a way as to have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. The richest countries in the world are saving more land and water resources and returning animals to their natural habitats.

    For some obscure reason, anti-growth advocates want us to turn back. Their plan involves the degradation of rich countries for the sake of nature conservation.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what an anti-growth world would be like. There would be no lockdown and no social distancing, but there would be all the signs of a recession: job losses, company bankruptcies, loan defaults and other problems. Corporate and government revenues would fall, which means that innovation would stop.

    How many people would agree to all this in exchange for reducing environmental pollution if they knew that it could be improved while continuing to evolve?

    Let’s investigate the arguments of the opposite sides in the next articles.

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