A new model for life

To make life on this planet sustainable for us all, we need to completely rethink how we measure eco

If the UK is to meet to meet its climate change targets, it means big change. Exactly how big is not always obvious. We "offshore" or export a large share of our carbon because many of the energy-intensive things we consume, from flatscreen TVs to the ingredients of manufacturing, such as steel and aluminium, are made abroad. Such "embedded" emissions don't show up on our official carbon accounts. It hides just how much we in the UK live beyond our environmental means.

Changing that means consuming less, which almost certainly means importing less. And, here is the challenge to conventional approaches to development and poverty reduction. Decades of economic policy have told poor countries that they must export their way out of poverty.

Scratch the surface of this debate and many new opportunities appear. First, the old logic is built on a paradox. In recent decades, the share of benefits from global economic growth getting to those at the bottom of the world's income league has shrunk. A recent UN-Habitat report talked of economic development being characterised by "islands of wealth in oceans of poverty" meaning that, for the poor to get slightly less poor, the over-consuming rich must consume ever more. It's a very inefficient way of doing things.

Conventional economic thinking says that, if the poorest are getting a smaller slice of the cake, just bake more cakes. But that assumes we have infinite resources. Already, based on a very conservative measure, we would need at least three and a half planets like earth for everyone to copy UK levels of consumption. But in reality, due to the gap and the dynamics between rich and poor, and how natural resource-use and income are linked, just to get everyone in the world onto a modest income of $3 per day would take the resources of around 15 planets.

However, abandoning current models creates other human and environmental avenues for progress. Kevin Anderson of Manchester University's Tyndall Centre for Climate Research concluded that conventional economic growth (measured by rising GDP) in the OECD group of rich countries was incompatible with stopping "dangerous" levels of global warming of 2°, 3° or even 4°C. Just 2°C is generally considered the maximum risk we can take. Even in response to the recession - emissions and economic activity are closely linked - the drop in carbon emissions was shown to be much less than expected in recent research led by Professor Pierre Friedlingstein of Exeter University. Why? Efficiency improvements in how much carbon it takes to fuel the economy had weakened. David Cameron recently made good on a pre-election promise by announcing funds to develop a meaningful measure of wellbeing that can sit alongside conventional economic indicators. By reducing our carbon and ecological footprints - as so much consumption is surplus to raising wellbeing - we can increase the room for economic development of especially of the poorest who, in terms of their uptake of fair global shares of resources, are currently underconsuming.

Professor Jayati Ghosh, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India goes to the heart of the problem, "The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified," she writes. "The model popularised by 'the American Dream' is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, ­market and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport."

Similarly, the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef writes: "Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and wellbeing." The development economist David Woodward argues that the heart of a new model will involve, "raising demand, production and consumption of basic goods, of and by low­-­income communities in a virtuous cycle", rather than merely hoping to earn a living by exporting into the whims of the casino-like global commodity markets.

The disconnect in rich countries between growth and quality of life was pointed out by the former head of the CBI, and now head of the Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner. As a contributor to the book Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? he wrote that "we should... dethrone the idea that maximising the growth in measured prosperity, GDP per capita, should be an explicit objective of economic and social policy" because this failed to measure real progress. Separately, in a low-carbon model of the UK economy, published as The Great Transition by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), in which climate targets are met and GDP goes down, the way we are able still to pay for the things we want, in terms of health and education, is by moving toward Danish-style levels of equality.

Fresh thinking is essential. As Gilbert Rist in The History of Development puts it: "The faith in 'development' can no longer escape criticism not only because it justifies huge increases in social inequality, but because it has become dang­erous, by compromising everybody's future."

Andrew Simms is co-author of "Eminent Corporations: The Rise and Fall of the Great British Brands" (Constable, £8.99; pub: 2010) and policy director of NEF

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle