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By crushing emissions, the recession is saving our lives

If it weren't for the global slowdown, our planet would be in a far worse state than it already is.

Photograph: Getty Images

In the penultimate blog of this series we consider the third dimension of this era of "Great Uncertainty", the profound environmental challenge we face. The story of our environmental crisis is the story of a series of symbolic breaches. On 10th May this year the Earth Systems Research Laboratory (an environmental observatory and part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) perched 11,000 feet up atop the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii recorded the first ever average daily carbon dioxide level in excess of 400 parts per million (ppm). CO2 levels last reached such levels some 5 million years ago.

400 ppm, just like every other such symbolic ceiling, was long considered an unattainable figure, a level we could simply not allow ourselves to hit – a kind of doomsday portend and the point at which we would need to become (if we were not already) very, very scared that the damage we had inflicted on the planet was likely to prove irreparable and irreversible.  But it came and went, just like all the others – and most of us, I suspect, no longer give it very much thought. Indeed, it may well be that we are becoming increasingly immune to such symbolic breaches as the process of environmental and ecological grieving becomes ever more familiar.

But most of us know we can’t carry on like this. We know, in particular, that we can’t afford to forget for a moment this third dimension of the Great Uncertainty, even as we grapple with its first two features. Nor can we seek to solve those aspects of the situation at the expense of worsening our prospects in relation to this third issue. At heart, we face not just a crisis of growth, but, much more significantly, a crisis for growth.

This is of course immensely difficult terrain on which think and act. But there are some things we can say and do.

First, we can remind ourselves of why the task is so urgent – and we need to do so. There are some things, climate change denial notwithstanding, that we can be pretty certain about. Interestingly, though perhaps unremarkably when you think about it, they are not about symbolic breaches like passing through the 400 ppm CO2 threshold. They are about the planet’s "carrying capacity"; and the point is that for CO2, alas, it’s a lot less than 400 ppm.

This concept allows us to identify a series of planetary boundaries – what Johan Rockstrom called "the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system… associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes".  Here, with the benefits of the latest science, we can start to counter-pose current figures on environmental degradation with expert best approximations of the planet’s carrying capacity (the point beyond which we simply cannot go without threatening human life, certainly as we know it, on earth).

The results are startling and alarming in equal measure. Adapted and updated from Rockstrom, they are summarised in the table below for just a small sub-set of the planetary carrying capacities we might consider:

Earth system processes Parameter Boundary Current level
Climate change Atmospheric CO(ppm) 350 >400
Biodiversity loss Extinction rate (no. of species per million per year) 10 >100
Nitrogen cycle Amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere for human use (million tonnes per year) 35 >120
Freshwater use Human consumption of freshwater (km3 per year) 4000 c. 3000
Ocean acidification Global mean saturation state of aragonite in surface sea water 2.75 2.9
Landmass usage Per cent of global landmass used for crops 15 c. 12

Data like this show that we are already in the "red zone" (where we exceed planetary carrying capacity) with respect to a number of earth-system processes and moving rapidly into it in a number of the others.

Second, we need to recognise that the global financial crisis has done more to reduce the pace (or at least slow the acceleration) of the process of global environmental degradation than anything directly intended to have such an effect. That is because it has served to reduced aggregate global growth rates. Of course, we need to be extremely careful here. For one’s enemies’ enemies do not always make good friends – and we can have environmentally unsustainable non-growth just as much as we can have environmentally unsustainable growth. Indeed, what is clear is that we have had both: the post-2008 story is only of the move from the latter to the former.

Nevertheless, what such reflections reveal is just how crucial the question of growth is to our capacity to respond to the global environmental crisis. Almost certainly, we will need to wean ourselves off growth if we are to do anything that takes us out of the "red zone" (and time-lag effects, it scarcely need be pointed out, are very considerable indeed).

So how might we do this? That’s not easy to specify in detail yet, but the starting point is, on the face of it, deceptively simple (though one should not underestimate the political difficulties of what we here propose). It is that we work collectively and globally to change the global currency of economic success – replacing the convention of growth (for that is what it is) with something else.

In effect, we need urgently to devise a more balanced and sustainable array of genuinely global (indeed, planetary) collective public goods whose promotion might eventually replace the blind and narrow pursuit of economic output as the global currency of economic success.

What’s more, it’s not too difficult to imagine what might be entailed here. Alongside GDP we would need to build a new index of economic success – a compound index, inevitably. It might include things like changes in the Gini coefficient (in the direction of greater societal equality), changes in per capita energy use (rewarding increased energy efficiency and sustainability), changes in per capita carbon emissions and other planetary boundary statistics (rewarding the greening of residual growth) and perhaps a range of more routine development indices (changes in literacy rates and so forth).

This alternative Social, Environmental and Developmental index – let’s call it SED – would be recorded and published alongside GDP and would immediately allow the production of a new hybrid GDP-SED index. Over a globally agreed timescale, the proportion of SED relative to GDP in the hybrid index would rise – from zero (now) to 100 per cent (at some agreed point in the future).

In the interim, we would, of course, gauge whether our economies were "growing", "flat-lining" or "in recession" according to the new hybrid index, moving in effect from GDP to SED in how we measured economic performance.

The changes to our modes of living over that period of time would be immense – and would need to be immense. But it’s surely what is required if we are to rectify our planetary imbalance and, even so, it’s only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of exiting that dangerous planetary "red-zone".

This is the fourth in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".