Climate change: time to end the tug of war

Publication Date: 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 - 4:45pm


Karen Jeffrey, NEF

What's stopping us joining forces to act on climate change? UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki moon thinks scepticism is still one of the fundamental obstacles. But I think there’s more to it than that.

As the effects of climate change hit home, a deeper disagreement is surfacing: not from the dwindling sceptic camp, but from the growing proportion of us already convinced of the need for action. We all want an environmentally sustainable economy, but when it comes to how we get there – we’re divided.

At one pole, green growth advocates believe the economy should remain broadly unchanged. We should continue to pursue economic growth because technological innovation will someday enable us to use natural resources in a sustainable way. At the other pole, degrowth advocates believe that economies must actually contract if we are to avoid breaching environmental limits.

Sure, many of us, if pressed, might place our own position on the matter somewhere between these two extremes.  But has framing the issue in terms of this division created a tendency to (consciously or not) relate with one or other pole; making us reluctant to give serious consideration to the views set out by the “other side”?

I think so. And I think it’s slowing us down. Which is why in the new paper we’ve just completed as part of the European Commission’s NETGREEN project, we set out to abandon our preconceptions on how best to achieve a green economy and take a more objective look at the main approaches that have been championed. The idea was to get to grips with exactly why the approaches differ on three key aspects:

  1. the strategic approach to transitioning;
  2. the interventions necessary to make the transition happen;and
  3. the political viability of the overall approach.

We found that, once you give equal merit to all approaches, some incontestable truths become clear, revealing greater agreement than the pro-growth versus degrowth dichotomy suggests.  

For example, the cost and extent of technological innovation needed to decouple production from environmental degradation is often presented as one of the main battlegrounds in the green economy debate. But scratching at the surface reveals that at the heart of this lies the indisputable truth that we simply cannot know whether advances in technology will provide the solution to environmental sustainability. This realisation makes it clear that the dispute isn’t about what technology will achieve, but whether technological innovation is the only solution that’s likely to work; and whether alternative solutions should also be pursued, such as convincing citizens to switch to less resource intensive lifestyles.

This isn’t a new revelation - but we think that by approaching the disagreement more objectively, it’s easier to get to the crux of the issue, frame it in terms of the true source of disagreement, and identify common ground along the way. By taking such an approach, we might just be able to find opportunities for constructive discussion, be able to move thinking forward, and crucially, accelerate progress towards a green economy.


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