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Can we really have it all? Economic growth, social wellbeing & environmental protection

Photo by Sanjeevan SatheesKumar @

It is rare these days to hear anyone say, ‘We want more growth, and if that means destroying the environment, well, that’s the price we must pay!’ Local and central government documents are adorned with such statements as ‘We are going to grow our city/district/economy, while protecting and enhancing the environment, and transitioning to a low-carbon future’. Most of us would relate more to the second kind of statement – it sounds more, well, sustainable.

But which one is more honest?

In an attempt to answer this, I have been exploring the literature around green growth. This is the idea that we can continue growing the global (and national) economy, while reducing our impact on the environment, and especially climate. The central assumption is that we can decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions and resource use.

So, how is this going? Not that well so far. As of 2022, seven years after the Paris Agreement agreed to maintain global temperatures below 1.5 degrees, global CO2 emissions are still rising.

That may be so, but haven’t some countries managed to decouple their economies from emissions? Yes, one study often cited to support the case for green growth found that between 2005 and 2015, 18 countries (mainly – but not all - European) have decreased their CO2 emissions by 2.4% per year collectively – though that decrease can in part be explained by a slowdown in GDP growth rates.

And, while decoupling of emissions is happening in some regions, there are almost no cases of the absolute decoupling of resource use (i.e., a decrease in resource use while GDP continues to go up).

And of course, it is important to remember that the biosphere doesn’t care where emissions come from. So if one country is able to decouple its emissions by – at least in part – outsourcing polluting industries to another country, that’s good for its emissions footprint but doesn’t make a jot of difference for the health of our planet.

But can’t we just plant more trees, to suck up our growing emissions and reach ‘net zero’ that way? Not according to Climate Commissioner Dr Rod Carr, who says this only reinforces a ‘plant and pollute’ mindset. Carbon sequestration through tree-planting is riddled with problems, including the time it takes for a newly planted forest to mature and sequester at an optimal rate (when emissions and harm from emissions is happening now), and the fact that once it reaches maturity, sequestration plateaus. To use forests to sequester our growing emissions, we would also need an immense amount of space, inevitably compromising capacity for food production. Impermanence is another major flaw - forests are vulnerable to multiple risks, including fire, disease, destruction for other land uses, and of course harvesting for timber. In a (tree)nut-shell - trees are great, but they shouldn't be our strategy to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

But what about negative emissions technology, such as BECCS (bioenergy and carbon capture and storage)? This is what many (including the IPCC) are pinning their hopes on. Scaling BECCS to the level required to meet net zero targets will require a vast area of agricultural land (estimated to be equivalent to two times the size of India – for best results the size of Africa would be even better) and colossal quantities of water and fertiliser to grow the crops required to create biofuels (recent estimates put both at double current global usage), shooting through already strained biophysical limits, not to mention being problematic for global inequities (which countries are going to forgo food-making capacity to enable us to continue our pursuit of growth?). Check out this video explainer on BECCS.

Broadening the discussion for a moment to the idea of 'sustainable development', established as a foundational principle at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, including being enshrined in our own Local Government Act 2002, has also been criticised as a vague and contradictory concept enabling governments to promote the message that 'we can have it all at the same time, i.e. economic growth, prospering societies and a healthy environment. ... This so-called weak version of sustainability is popular among governments, and businesses, but profoundly wrong and not even weak [sustainability], as there is no alternative to preserving the earth’s ecological integrity." (Klaus Bosselmann in his book 'The principal of sustainability' (2017)). Our difficulty in decoupling environmental harm from economic development certainly supports this critique.

And from a New Zealand perspective, numerous environmental indicators tell us that since the enactment of the Resource Management Act in 1991, based on the principle of 'sustainable management', degradation of our environment has only accelerated. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, see Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand.)

So where does this leave us? While the idea that we can continue to pursue growth while reducing harm on the planet (through reduced emissions and resource use, environmental destruction and degradation) may remain alive in theory, there is little empirical evidence that it is possible in practice. Put simply, it hasn’t happened so far.

So at what stage do we abandon the imperative for growth and focus instead on the pursuit of human and planetary wellbeing?


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