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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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.