20 November 2008
NewStatesman – World Saved . . . planet doomed
Green activists are seeing the global economic crisis as an opportunity, but the truth remains: high
You could call it the see-saw effect: it has long been an article of political faith that as worries about the economy go up, interest in the environment must go down. It stands to reason: people who are concerned today about their jobs have more immediate matters of alarm than whether or not there may be more storms in 2055. Environmental concerns are a luxury of the rich, something we can no longer afford once the economy turns sour and recession looms. “I’m nervous,” wrote Jonathon Porritt in June – after Northern Rock and Bear Stearns but be-fore Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and Iceland. “Climate change is still tough for politicians to sell. This all feels very much like one of those periodic crunch moments for the sustainability agenda.”
In the past few weeks, green economists and campaigners have noticed the emergence of an unexpected credit-crunch dividend. As Cameron Hepburn, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told me: “The economic crisis softens people up to the scale of the numbers – $700bn doesn’t seem impossible any more. In fact, the incremental cost of completely greening the world’s energy system is certainly less than that per annum.”
“Green growth” can offer a positive way forward in the short term, but the impossibility of reconciling an endlessly growing economy with the limitations of a finite planet cannot be avoided. Even though, in Cameron Hepburn’s words, a “dematerialisation of the economy is feasible in a thermodynamic sense”, this hasn’t happened so far anywhere – rising GDP is pegged to rising material consumption, and thereby to a rising impact on the environment.