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.

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".

Photograph: Getty Images

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com