Existing green growth policies are leading nowhere fast, so scientists say it’s worth exploring alternatives like degrowth to stay within planetary boundaries.

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With Earth’s average annual temperature speeding toward 1.5C faster than expected and global climate policy on a treadmill, an increasing number of researchers say it’s time to consider a “restorative pathway” to avoid the worst ecological and social outcomes of global warming.

In a study published this month in Environmental Research Letters, an international team of scientists wrote that reaching global goals could require focusing on ways to drive rapid changes in the way people live, move, work and eat; on making sure that global wealth is distributed more equitably; and on restoring and protecting biodiversity and ecosystems like forests, oceans, fields and rivers that are critical to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The restorative approach should be considered soon because the pace of climate impacts to ecosystems and communities is speeding up, the authors said. 

Climate extremes are outpacing decades of efforts to cap global warming with tools like carbon trading and offsets. Those are hallmarks of the green growth path mapped out by various United Nations-sponsored climate pacts like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, as well other ancillary agreements. They all aim to keep growing the global economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 — partly based on assuming that large quantities of carbon dioxide will be directly removed from the air and stored by giant machines by then. 

Many countries, like France, Sweden and the United States, have reduced emissions while continuing to grow their economies — called decoupling — over the last few decades, but research shows it’s not happening nearly fast enough to cap global warming. 

Total global emissions, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the global average temperature all climbed to record highs during the past 30 years, amounting to about half the total greenhouse gas accumulations in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age. 

“It’s almost too late. We need to get cracking with this,” said Manfred Lenzen, a sustainability researcher at the University of Sydney and co-author of the new paper.  “A lot of people think 1.5 is dead already, that we have to realistically aim for staying below 2C,” he said, adding that green growth — decoupling emissions from economic expansion — might have worked if the world had taken it seriously in 2000. 

Starting then, it would have taken only a 2% annual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to reach net zero by 2050; starting now means cutting global emissions by 7% a year, but the green growth approach is not cutting emissions by anywhere near the required rate, he said. 

And, particularly as outlined in the policy guiding reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, it relies on deployment of unproven technologies.

Carbon-removal technology, for example, is still decades away from deployment at a scale that would match the IPCC’s pathways to cap global warming at 1.5C, as per the Paris Climate Agreement, said Lenzen. 

Lenzen also co-authored a 2021 paper describing a “degrowth” alternative to the existing IPCC options, based on the idea of shrinking economies in rich countries in a controlled way by reducing production and consumption, in order to protect natural resources and reduce environmental damage while improving well-being.

Degrowth research is going mainstream

A 2023 study in The Lancet Planetary Health journal showed that, even in countries with falling emissions and growing economies, emissions are not declining at rates compliant with the Paris Agreement. At the current rates, it would take those countries on average more than 220 years to reduce their emissions by 95%, the goal targeted for 2050.

The authors of that study wrote that those decoupling rates in high-income countries “cannot legitimately be considered green (…) To achieve Paris-compliant emission reductions, high-income countries will need to pursue post-growth demand-reduction strategies, reorienting the economy towards sufficiency, equity, and human wellbeing, while also accelerating technological change and efficiency improvements.”

Another 2023 paper in Nature described widespread scientific scepticism, especially in high-income countries, about the existing strain of tech-driven green growth, and also called for exploring “post-growth perspectives, including [growth-neutral] and degrowth strategies, to cultivate a more comprehensive discourse on sustainable development strategies.”

In any case, Lenzen added, “we’re not giving technology the chance to catch up with consumption, and that has been the dynamics over the past decade,” he said, describing a decades-long trend that is now leading researchers to look at alternative economics built on ecological sustainability and social justice.

The new paper doesn’t specifically use the term “degrowth,” but shares common themes, like focusing on human wellbeing and reduction of inequality. That “opens the possibility of talking about alternative sustainability scenarios without being too provocative about it,” said Lorenz Keyßer, a degrowth researcher at the University of Lausanne. 

That could make it more palatable to a wider audience, he added, including to the community of scientists who build the complex climate models that integrate human behaviour with climate physics.

“Compared to their pathway, I think degrowth thinking is more explicit in terms of the proposed changes,” he said. “And it’s more openly ‘radical’ in the sense of being more pessimistic about green growth and decoupling, and in favour of a more transformative approach, which also includes ruptures and conflict.”

But research on degrowth, and similar related concepts like circular economies, or donut economics, is growing, and the European Parliament last year tasked its research service to study “beyond growth” alternatives, including a hard look to determine whether the European Union Green Deal is really sustainable.  

Developing country leaders also recently spelled out steps that could have a huge cumulative impact and help protect vulnerable countries from climate impacts.

Speaking at COP28 in the context of global equity in climate financing, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said a global financial services tax of 0.1% could raise $420 billion, and a 5% tax on oil and gas profits would raise another $200 billion, while a 1% tax on the value of shipping would raise $70 billion.

And there would have to be some new global compact that “allows countries to recognise that they cannot only act in their own deliberate interest, but they have to also act in the interest of the preservation of global public goods,” Mottley said. 

“We happen to be talking about climate,” she added. “But we could easily be talking about pandemics and big pharma. We could easily be talking about the digital divide and big tech.”

“Radical incrementalism”

Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, co-author of the new paper, said the findings show that their restorative pathway should be included in climate models along with the five “shared socioeconomic pathways,” or SSPs, that are used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Current emissions trends, societal denial and lack of political will make their scenario a tough sell, but he said its merits can’t be honestly debated if it’s not included as an option for policy makers. 

Their findings suggest a path of “radical incrementalism,” with small short-term steps to achieve big changes, like reducing the need to mine for metals or log forests to levels that don’t threaten biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, with per capita GDP stabilising over time.

“Ending fossil fuel subsidies and public lands fossil fuel extraction projects would be great first steps for the U.S. and other developed countries, where applicable,” he said. “These actions would be low-hanging fruit and a good start in the process of radical incrementalism.”

Directly phasing out fossil fuel use is also critical, Ripple added. “An important step in this direction would be the adoption of a global coal elimination treaty since the coal industry has extremely harmful impacts on the climate and human health.”

For the paper, the team compiled a 500-year dataset for several key global climate indicators to measure humanity’s consumption of resources over the period. 

“The results show a great acceleration of resource use and impacts since about 1850,” he said. “This illustrates that climate change is a symptom of the broader problem of ecological overshoot, the overexploitation of the Earth, which is driving several environmental crises.” The restorative pathway was designed to tackle this underlying issue, he added.

“As our current predicament makes clear, business-as-usual isn’t working and continued economic growth in wealthy countries isn’t sustainable,” Ripple said. “This motivated us to call for a shift toward post-growth economics where quality of life and societal wellbeing are the main priority.” 

The key to curbing ecological overshoot means greatly reducing overconsumption and waste, especially by the wealthy, and implementing ecological economics that would focus on social justice rather than continued growth, he said.

One of the global measures they used dating back to 1820 shows the top 10% of the world’s wealthiest have consistently received at least 50% of all income, illustrating global economic inequality over the long term. 

“The magnitude of this inequality,” he said, “provides further evidence that we need a dramatic change. We face multiple serious and interrelated social and environmental crises. We need economic policies that guide humanity toward more equitable resource use patterns.”