In a recent global survey of climate researchers and scientists conducted by the ESCP Business School, 73% of respondents said that they believe that agrowth or degrowth, rather than green growth, are the better pathways forward to address climate change. While these findings are troubling, they do not negate the fact that green growth, which decouples economic growth and emissions, is the necessary pathway to meaningfully reduce emissions and accelerate human prosperity.
Degrowth environmentalism, a belief that is championed by groups like Extinction Rebellion, states that the only way to reach desired environmental objectives is for economies, especially developed economies, to reduce their output and prioritize reducing emissions above everything else. Agrowth adopts a neutral view and instead focuses on environmental sustainability regardless of economic growth or shrinkage. While degrowthism is certainly more dangerous and harmful than agrowth environmentalism, green growth’s decline could spell trouble for environmental and economic prosperity.
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The degrowth narrative drastically negates the concept of tradeoffs in addressing climate change. Sure, turning off the lights and instantly halting all economic activity worldwide would reduce emissions, but at what cost? Green growth is what people need to attain higher standards of living while reducing the risks of climate change. Policies that unleash green growth, and promote sustainable development that improves human flourishing should be protected and expanded worldwide.
Advocates of degrowthism come from a worldview that believes that climate change is an unsolvable problem and that human greed and consumption are to blame. This inevitably leads degrowthers to the false choice of economic progress or environmental sustainability, which in turn leads to policies that endorse more state control and less consumer choice are business freedom.
While human activity since the Industrial Revolution is certainly the primary driver of climate change, degrowthers’ belief that economic stagnation is the answer to our problems is antithetical to what history, economics, and science tell us. As our Free Economies are Clean Economies report shows, the best way to address climate change and other environmental challenges is by unleashing economic freedom. As the authors of the Yale Environmental Performance Index (EPI), widely considered the most comprehensive measurement of environmental indicators, write in their most recent report:
Economic freedom and green growth incentivize innovation and efficiency because it is in the best interest of companies. These competitive markets allow businesses to respond to consumer and market demands to deliver cleaner and more developed technologies. Time and again history has shown that the market responds quickly to societal needs, oftentimes with better solutions. For instance, in his journey to address potential oil shortages, George Mitchell began experimenting with different drilling techniques in the 1980s. His work would lead to the hydraulic fracturing revolution which allowed the U.S. to rapidly reduce emissions and provide affordable, reliable power to families and businesses. In a rather short time, the U.S. became a global leader in emissions reductions and energy production, creating jobs and higher levels of economic prosperity along the way.
Stories of innovation like these are not uncommon. As C3 has documented extensively, there are several instances of private sector entrepreneurs addressing energy and environmental challenges with outside-the-box thinking and risk-taking. Open, competitive markets will make clean options cheaper and more readily available.
Economic freedom and green growth also allow for upward mobility in developing and developed countries alike. This is a critical component in adapting to climate risk. As countries rise up the economic ladder they are able to spend additional resources on stronger infrastructure and sea walls which reduce casualties from extreme weather events.
Importantly, restrictive and oppressive government regimes have a long and well-documented history of environmental degradation as there is limited civilian oversight and transparency to hold polluters responsible. In Venezuela for instance, the government’s ownership of the energy companies has led to oil leakages from broken pipelines underwater that turn the water to a shade of neon green that can be seen from space.
Before further buying into the degrowth narrative, policymakers and citizens should look to history, economics, and science. Green growth and economic freedom have alleviated poverty, accelerated innovation, and delivered meaningful climate progress. Alternatively, degrowth environmentalism ignores tradeoffs and leads to authoritarianism and human suffering.