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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”