Is economic growth fuelling climate change? | Crunched
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Is economic growth fuelling climate change? | Crunched

January 8, 2020

So, Federica, what has
been bugging you this week. Well, I thought we
could stick our teeth into this debate about
whether economic growth is the enemy of the environment. All right. There was this video that caught
our attention, that went viral. We have to overthrow
this system which is eating the planet
with perpetual growth. I mean, since when was
GDP a sensible measure of human welfare. And yet everything that
governments want to do is to try to boost GDP. Now people like the OECD or
the World Bank are saying, oh, we’re not asking
for a lot of growth. Just 3 per cent a year. That means doubling in 24 years. Yeah, we’re bursting through
all the environmental boundaries and screwing the planet already. You want to double it? Double all that. Double it again. Keep doubling it? It’s madness. We’ve got to find a better
way of measuring human welfare than perpetual growth. You know, it’s a
very striking video. He makes a very
strong argument there. But I think there’s
a difficulty, there’s a risk here that
we say that economic growth and sustainability
and environment are mutually exclusive. That we’re sort of saying
you can’t reduce emissions while having economic growth. But there’s a really
interesting chart I saw the other day which is
showing how economic growth has changed but also how the
energy intensity of that growth has changed. So how much energy it takes to
produce a given amount of GDP. We’re starting from 1980
and going through to 2017. And if we normalise
all the numbers, so whatever the figure
was in the year 2000 becomes a value of 100. And GDP globally
has come through, and it is now double what
it was, global GDP, in 2000. However the carbon
intensity of that GDP has been gradually decreasing. So the amount of carbon dioxide
and the amount of energy that is used to
create economic growth has reduced, and that
sort of pulled down the total fossil fuel emissions. So fossil fuel usage
has risen by much less than economic growth because
the energy intensity of GDP has improved. If this energy intensity,
the efficiency at which we grow the economy
continue to improve, you could get to a point
where we have growth, but we are still
cutting emissions. So I just think we
shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater
and say economic growth is now suddenly a bad thing. This chart purports to show
that fossil fuels and energy intensity, that
the pace of growth, of these elements
of economic growth has either slowed or
is actually declining. So everything is rosy. However, I think that it isn’t. If we look at oil
consumption, for example. OK. So this is global oil
consumption from 1994 to 2019. We’ve now hit 100m barrels
per day being consumed. So clearly, if we want
to save the environment we can’t carry on like this. Where I disagree with George
Mombiot is that I don’t think it’s necessary that we start
with overturning the system. I think we should go back to
how the system is measured. OK. And I’m not the only
one who thinks that. There is a massive
debate amongst economists in terms of how we
measure economic growth. And some have come up with
this idea of green GDP. So this is
environmentally-friendly economic growth,
and it all goes back to the idea that
gross domestic product and how we measure
it is very faulty. Let’s say, for example,
when often in our articles we’ll cover quarterly
growth and we’ll see the economy this quarter is
growing by 0.2 or 0.4 per cent. This decimal point
gives us the idea that it’s a very accurate
and precise number. But there’s a lot of uncertainty
behind this number, actually. Let’s say there’s
a natural disaster. Because of all the
reconstruction efforts that are needed to
rebuild a society after a natural disaster, that
also counts as economic growth. So even though
we’ve lost assets, there’s been destruction,
by definition, that’s still counting towards
economic growth to the economy. The output is still there, yeah. So statisticians have
come up with a new measure for economic growth that is
more environmentally-friendly, that discounts waste, social
disharmony, and so on and so forth. And that’s actually
been pioneered by some Chinese statisticians,
and they come up with a formula for green GDP. OK now, green GDP,
to me, I mean, it sounds conceptually great,
but how does that even work? How do you calculate it? Are they going around
counting trees being planted, and polar bears being saved? How do you calculate green GDP? And what kind of monetary value
can you assign to a river, for example. I mean, some people have tried
to do that, but let’s not get stuck into this. I’ll show you the
formula for green GDP. It’s actually kind of simple. Almost too simple, which
will make us a bit sceptical. So basically, it’s… we’ll just start from
GDP as we measure it now and we subtract from that CO2
emissions, waste, and the money that we could have
made had we converted that waste into electricity,
and we remove also the natural resources
that we depleted when creating this economic growth. Cool. And they’ve applied this
to a couple of countries to see what difference the
real GDP and the green GDP will make to economic growth. So I guess this will show us
which countries are getting the sort of dirtiest
economic growth, and which have got sort of the
cleanest growth, as you were. Like the difference
between those numbers. Yeah, I suppose so. And let’s try and make
a chart with something that I used to use
in elementary school. This is in Italy. Excellent. Number blocks. They just extracted GDP
growth figures from 2014 from a bunch of countries, and
they looked at those measures for economic growth. And then applied that
green GDP formula. Let’s have a look at
a couple of countries. Now we were going through
this, and we thought Mexico was quite interesting. So Mexico’s conventional
GDP growth rate in 2014 was 2.87, so about 3 per cent. About 3 per cent. But it’s green GDP growth
in that same period was actually a
contraction of 3 per cent. Yeah. So in fact, it’s negative. So the economy contracted if we
consider waste, CO2 emissions, environmental depletion. Mexico’s economy contracted. So we’re sort of
saying they were using a lot of the fossil fuels. They were creating
a lot of waste, and they were probably
depleting natural resources to produce that growth. Now let’s look at China. China grew by 9 per cent. Actual green GDP… Dropped to 6 per cent. Now let’s see. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. So it came in from 9 to 6 when
you factor in those resources. Let’s have a look at
the US and the UK. So the US was going to 4 per
cent and came in to 3 per cent. UK 10 per cent growth in 2014. Let’s do it. I don’t believe this. OK, but whatever. This is 10 and then green
GDP, it’s 9 per cent. So to be clear here,
we have the green GDP, it doesn’t actually mean that
our environmental resources have grown. This is just a more
eco-friendly way of measuring economic
growth in itself. Now separately, there are
efforts to actually calculate what is called our natural
capital, our trees, and our fish, and so
on, but it’s still at a very primordial stage. And so I guess to bring this
back to what George Mombiot was saying in the
video at the start, the problem we have today is
that economic growth, as it’s currently measured,
is in tension with environmental
conservation, and generally when economies grow
part of that growth is coming from
resource depletion, from damaging the planet. If economists, natural
accountants, as it were, all of these different bodies
can come together and create a new measure, a more
ecologically-friendly measure of green GDP, then we
could get to a stage where countries
could be targeting that green GDP in their growth. Could be growing, and
yet not at the same time damaging the planet. So effectively, the
ball now is in the court of the beancounters. It’s up to them. We need a robust measure
that all countries can agree is a precise and
useful measure, but one that includes, takes into account of
the value of natural resources and waste in fossil fuels. Let’s see what they can do.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. GDP growth is essential to avoid the economic collapse of the current global debt based economy … "tomorrow's growth will pay off today's debts"

    The only way to change this is to basically ban usury, and this has been tried before …

  2. I would love to see Crunched look into the topic of energy efficiency in the UK and how that relates to climate change. There are a growing number of smaller, renewable energy suppliers (eg. Bulb, Ecotricity etc) that are disrupting the market. I would love to see data looking at how growth of this new sector could affect CO2 emissions, energy prices, energy efficiency, UK- wide going forward.

  3. This content is spot on and so interesting! Although I don think its funny that the FT think connecting with 'The Youth' means having their experts sit on the floor and hand each other's macbook back and forth. #MidclassThursdays

  4. People want better living conditions than their parent but also want to protect the environment. Someone needs to tell them you can't have one with the other. So when you go protest an ecological fuel tax you are just destroying the planet (see France's yellow jackets) for your own very short term well being. People are cavemens completely incapable of fearing what they don't see, Humanity is already doomed.

  5. Good video, but I love how they sit on the floor to look cool and modern when their souls are crying for chairs and desks.

  6. Where on earth are those GDP figures from? Makes it slightly hard to take the stated "green GDP" figures seriously when the UK apparently grew by 10%

  7. Why is GDP important? Only because it's one of the metrics used to determine monetary policy. The problem is monetarism, not how you calculate GDP. Monbiot is wrong. The economy should be growing much faster and it would be if only big inefficient stupid industries, principally petrochemicals, weren't effectively controlling 90% of the capital and afraid of new technology because they rely on abusing that capital to maintain their fraudulent profitability.

  8. Those numbers only make sense if you take western economies in isolation. The carbon footprint of GDP may be decreasing in the developed world, but it is nowhere near as positive a ratio if you include Asia, South America, and Africa! So the numbers are skewed at best in this video. Also, I believe the main point raised was the idea that GDP is an inadequate measure for human welfare.

    Nvm, serves me right commenting before the end of the video… They didn't address that point even a little bit… Love how human welfare never even entered into the conversation.

  9. My 100% Renewable Energy Blog
    (for sustainable growth)

  10. Very nice video guys but the growth of gdps are wrong. Uk gdp growth in 2014 was 3.1% (1.6% green gdp).

  11. I was excited to see that you were going to be addressing this topic, but, to be honest, a bit disappointed by the shallow treatment.

    I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read it looks like it’s possible to decouple GDP growth from carbon emissions, but not from environmental damage more generally.

    This is an enormously serious issue and it’s organisations like the FT that should be getting to grips with it. Unfortunately, this came across as a bit dismissive. ‘Green GDP’ is better than nothing but it really seems like it doesn’t come close to capturing the extent of the damage being done.

    As much as I like the FT, I can’t help but wonder if this is an issue that requires a kind of radical thinking that the paper isn’t cut out for.

    (By the way, it’s ‘Monbiot’, not ‘Mombiot’)

  12. And the good news is that there are now four times as many polar bears than there were in 1960, and all 73 of the climate models used by the UN/IPCC predicted temperature rises of between 2 and 10 times what they actually were- guessing by rolling dice would have yielded better predictions.
    We would be well served by more CO2 in the atmosphere- pollution is the problem. The best estimates suggest that 500,000 people living in Europe are killed each year as a result of toxic emmissions. Nobody is killed by CO2 in the atmosphere, and wouldn't be even at 10 times what it is now.

  13. How about starting with telling me just where the climate has actually changed. I mean, what a load of twaddle. How many major disasters are there that require massive amounts of rebuilding? Maybe a couple a year, and most of those are in areas that are not heavily built up. All I see here is a couple of morons debating something they really haven't got a clue about. Perhaps they should research that old saying – get a life! rofl!

  14. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or an economist to see what is happening on the planet. Especially if you were born and grew up when, overpopulation, polution, smog, and resource depletion, we're not even household words yet.

  15. What he said – It is not about the CO2 only. It includes – pollution – deforestation – desertification – animal extinction ( insects included) – water shortage and other stuff. The planet is a resource – we are soon to exceed the overdraft.

  16. A bigger economy allow for higher consumption and the latter rather than the former is what ultimatly harms the environment.

  17. I feel that the original point about doubling periods (3%=doubling in 24y) hasn't really been adressed here. As long as the GDP number is measuring something tangible, we're still striving for exponential growth of something tangible. Changing the definition of GDP to be greener doesn't change that. Exponential growth cannot be sustained forever in a finite world.

    A fun exercise to understand this better is to calculate how long energy use can grow before we get to the point where we use as much power as is currently received by the Earth from the sun. It doesn't take as long as you'd think.

  18. When did China reached 9%gdp??.. This video says in spite of us withdraw from green peace agreement, they are the best in maintaining green energy things..

  19. And what about using something like the Gross National Happiness (GNH) to measure a country's growth? Like Buthan is trying to do? Or some kind of mixture of the green GDP and the GNH? After all, only growth is not enough. The population happiness is important as well.

  20. The first graph is so stupid, it shows fossil fuel use still incresing in 2070 and this guy tries to imply it shows a reduction because the ratio is smaller! Does he actually understand the subject matter of the video?…must try harder


    A recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences

    States that the Dahurian larch trees (hardy trees) in north-eastern China's permafrost forest is growing faster due to climate change.

    The authors suggest that this may be warm soil temperatures as they are fuelling the growth spurts by lowering the depth of the permafrost layer which allows the tree roots to expand and suck up more nutrients.

    But the study shows increased growth can be disastrous for the forests in the long-term because no other tree species can survive the permafrost plains this far north, so if the larch forests of northern Asia disappear, the entire ecosystem would change.


  22. We are at 415ppm CO2 and rising quicker than ever. This stuff stays there for a long time – as in centuries. There is no feasible tech to remove it at scale. Throw in methane and NOx emissions and we are at 450ppm equivalent.

    Our emissions have to be negative. Yet our civilisation is 80-90% fossil dependent.

    Its nearly 2 deg C on the north pole today.

  23. It is infantile and 100% wrong said that economic growth is the cause. The main cause is the Green opposition to nuclear and the destruction of rain forest in Grazil, Africa, Indonesia, Burma, Bolivia, Venezuela

  24. this video is pointless, you discus how to measure GDP differently while everybody is still imiting Carbon and pollution at the same rate, so net result? again more time wasted.. however you want to explain it, infinite growth within a finite system (as is our earth) is impossible.. it snaps, like a balloon, and we will be crushed, poor people/countries first..

  25. According to the Vostok Ice Core Records, CO2 level changes have followed Earth's overall temperature changes at an 800 year lag for the last 800,000 years. That means that our current CO2 levels are the result of Earth's overall temperature 800 years ago. World leaders have convinced their dependents that this works in the reverse order, relatively quickly, and that we are to blame, so that they can tax us out of a false shared guilt in order to be able to afford to "fight" climate change, an unstoppable natural cycle. The following is the source of this information:

    Historical Carbon Dioxide Record from the Vostok Ice Core

    J.-M. Barnola, D. Raynaud, C. Lorius
    Laboratoire de Glaciologie et de Géophysique de l'Environnement,
    CNRS, BP96,
    38402 Saint Martin d'Heres Cedex, France

    N.I. Barkov
    Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute,
    Beringa Street 38, 199397,
    St. Petersburg, Russia

    Period of Record
    417,160 – 2,342 years BP

    In January 1998, the collaborative ice-drilling project between Russia, the United States, and France at the Russian Vostok station in East Antarctica yielded the deepest ice core ever recovered, reaching a depth of 3,623 m (Petit et al. 1997, 1999). Ice cores are unique with their entrapped air inclusions enabling direct records of past changes in atmospheric trace-gas composition. Preliminary data indicate the Vostok ice-core record extends through four climate cycles, with ice slightly older than 400 kyr (Petit et al. 1997, 1999). Because air bubbles do not close at the surface of the ice sheet but only near the firn-ice transition (that is, at ~90 m below the surface at Vostok), the air extracted from the ice is younger than the surrounding ice (Barnola et al. 1991). Using semiempirical models of densification applied to past Vostok climate conditions, Barnola et al. (1991) reported that the age difference between air and ice may be ~6000 years during the coldest periods instead of ~4000 years, as previously assumed. Ice samples were cut with a bandsaw in a cold room (at about -15°C) as close as possible to the center of the core in order to avoid surface contamination (Barnola et al. 1983). Gas extraction and measurements were performed with the "Grenoble analytical setup," which involved crushing the ice sample (~40 g) under vacuum in a stainless-steel container without melting it, expanding the gas released during the crushing in a pre-evacuated sampling loop, and analyzing the CO2 concentrations by gas chromatography (Barnola et al. 1983). The analytical system, except for the stainless-steel container in which the ice was crushed, was calibrated for each ice sample measurement with a standard mixture of CO2 in nitrogen and oxygen. For further details on the experimental procedures and the dating of the successive ice layers at Vostok, see Barnola et al. (1987, 1991), Lorius et al. (1985), and Petit et al. (1999).

    There is a close correlation between Antarctic temperature and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (Barnola et al. 1987). The extension of the Vostok CO2 record shows that the main trends of CO2 are similar for each glacial cycle. Major transitions from the lowest to the highest values are associated with glacial-interglacial transitions. During these transitions, the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rises from 180 to 280-300 ppmv (Petit et al. 1999). The extension of the Vostok CO2 record shows the present-day levels of CO2 are unprecedented during the past 420 kyr. Pre-industrial Holocene levels (~280 ppmv) are found during all interglacials, with the highest values (~300 ppmv) found approximately 323 kyr BP. When the Vostok ice core data were compared with other ice core data (Delmas et al. 1980; Neftel et al. 1982) for the past 30,000 – 40,000 years, good agreement was found between the records: all show low CO2 values [~200 parts per million by volume (ppmv)] during the Last Glacial Maximum and increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations associated with the glacial-Holocene transition. According to Barnola et al. (1991) and Petit et al. (1999) these measurements indicate that, at the beginning of the deglaciations, the CO2 increase either was in phase or lagged by less than ~1000 years with respect to the Antarctic temperature, whereas it clearly lagged behind the temperature at the onset of the glaciations.

    Barnola, J.-M., D. Raynaud, A. Neftel, and H. Oeschger. 1983. Comparison of CO2 measurements by two laboratories on air from bubbles in polar ice. Nature 303:410-13.

    Barnola, J.-M., D. Raynaud, Y.S. Korotkevich, and C. Lorius. 1987. Vostok ice core provides 160,000-year record of atmospheric CO2. Nature 329:408-14.

    Barnola, J.-M., P. Pimienta, D. Raynaud, and Y.S. Korotkevich. 1991. CO2-climate relationship as deduced from the Vostok ice core: A re-examination based on new measurements and on a re-evaluation of the air dating. Tellus 43(B):83- 90.

    Delmas, R.J., J.-M. Ascencio, and M. Legrand. 1980. Polar ice evidence that atmospheric CO2 20,000 yr BP was 50% of present. Nature 284:155-57.

    Jouzel, J., C. Lorius, J.R. Petit, C. Genthon, N.I. Barkov, V.M. Kotlyakov, and V.M. Petrov. 1987. Vostok ice core: A continuous isotopic temperature record over the last climatic cycle (160,000 years). Nature 329:403-8.

    Lorius, C., J. Jouzel, C. Ritz, L. Merlivat, N.I. Barkov, Y.S. Korotkevich, and V.M. Kotlyakov. 1985. A 150,000-year climatic record from Antarctic ice. Nature 316:591-96.

    Neftel, A., H. Oeschger, J. Schwander, B. Stauffer, and R. Zumbrunn. 1982. Ice core measurements give atmospheric CO2 content during the past 40,000 yr. Nature 295:220-23.

    Pepin, L., D. Raynaud, J.-M. Barnola, and M.F. Loutre. 2001. Hemispheric roles of climate forcings during glacial-interglacial transitions as deduced from the Vostok record and LLN-2D model experiments. Journal of Geophysical Research 106 (D23): 31,885-31,892.

    Petit, J.R., I. Basile, A. Leruyuet, D. Raynaud, C. Lorius, J. Jouzel, M. Stievenard, V.Y. Lipenkov, N.I. Barkov, B.B. Kudryashov, M. Davis, E. Saltzman, and V. Kotlyakov. 1997. Four climate cycles in Vostok ice core. Nature 387: 359-360.

    Petit, J.R., J. Jouzel, D. Raynaud, N.I. Barkov, J.-M. Barnola, I. Basile, M. Benders, J. Chappellaz, M. Davis, G. Delayque, M. Delmotte, V.M. Kotlyakov, M. Legrand, V.Y. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, L. Pépin, C. Ritz, E. Saltzman, and M. Stievenard. 1999. Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica. Nature 399: 429-436.

    Raynaud, D., and J.-M. Barnola. 1985. An Antarctic ice core reveals atmospheric CO2 variations over the past few centuries. Nature 315:309-11.

    CITE AS: Barnola, J.-M., D. Raynaud, C. Lorius, and N.I. Barkov. 2003. Historical CO2 record from the Vostok ice core. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.

    Revised February 2003

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