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Established climate mitigation scenarios assume continued economic growth in all countries, and reconcile this with the Paris targets by betting on speculative technological change. Post-growth approaches may make it easier to achieve rapid mitigation while improving social outcomes, and should be explored by climate modellers.
Urgent need for post-growth climate mitigation
Established climate mitigation scenarios assume continued economic growth in all countries, and reconcile this
with the Paris targets by betting on speculative technological change. Post-growth approaches may make it easier
to achieve rapid mitigation while improving social outcomes, and should be explored by climate modellers.
Jason Hickel, Paul Brockway, Giorgos Kallis, Lorenz Keyßer, Manfred Lenzen, Aljoša Slameršak,
Julia Steinberger and Diana Ürge-Vorsatz
As the world faces the reality of
climate breakdown, citizens, social
movements and governments are
grappling with how to respond. But so far
the public debate has been constrained
mostly to the policy options that
are represented in existing climate
mitigation scenarios.
Existing scenarios start with the
assumption that all nations should continue
to pursue economic growth for the rest of
the century, regardless of how rich they have
already become. Growth is an unquestioned
norm1. This creates a problem because
growth is projected to drive a significant
increase in energy demand over the coming
decades, making it more challenging to
decarbonize the economy2. To reconcile
growth with the Paris Agreement goals of
keeping global warming below 1.5 °C or
2 °C, existing scenarios gamble on dramatic
technological change, particularly negative
emissions technologies and productivity
improvements big enough to drive absolute
decoupling of gross domestic product
(GDP) from energy use.
In recent years, however, scientists have
raised substantial empirical questions about
the risks of negative emissions technologies
and the feasibility of achieving sufficient
absolute decoupling, warning that these
approaches may not be adequate to address
the crisis we face3.
Recognizing these challenges, ecological
economists have proposed an alternative
approach. For high-income countries,
continued economic growth may not
be necessary. Instead, they can adopt
post-growth policies, which are designed to
keep economies stable and support strong
social outcomes without economic growth4.
Policymakers commonly regard
economic growth as a proxy for human
development and social progress. But
past a certain point, which high-income
nations have long exceeded, the correlation
between GDP and social indicators breaks
down or becomes negligible. For instance,
Spain significantly outperforms the USA
in key social indicators (including a life
expectancy that is five years longer),
despite having 55% less GDP per capita.
When it comes to achieving strong social
outcomes, what matters is not a continuous
increase in commodity production, but
access to livelihoods and provisioning.
In high-income countries, delivering the
latter does not require additional growth;
rather, it requires a fairer distribution of
income and wealth, and guaranteed access
to universal public services. Post-growth
scholarship demonstrates that by organizing
the economy around principles of equity
and sufficiency, societies can deliver
high levels of human well-being with
significantly less energy and resources than
rich countries presently use5,6.
Post-growth policies are powerful
because they would make it possible to
achieve the Paris climate goals without
having to rely so heavily on negative
emissions technologies or productivity
improvements7. So far this approach
has not been modelled in mainstream
climate mitigation scenarios, however.
To honour the precautionary principle, and
in order to facilitate a public discussion
about alternative pathways, the range of
scenarios should be expanded to include
post-growth futures.
Risky assumptions
To achieve emissions reductions consistent
with the Paris Agreement, while respecting
the principles of equity and common but
differentiated responsibility, high-income
nations need to pursue dramatic emissions
Credit: David Tran/Alamy Stock Photo
reductions8. If we assume that high-income
nations continue to grow at usual rates, they
will need to decarbonize their economic
output by more than 12% per year. This
represents a significant challenge, given
that the few countries that have absolutely
decoupled GDP from emissions (such as the
UK, Spain and Romania) have on average
achieved decarbonization rates of only 3.4%
per year from 2005 to 20159.
To reconcile growth with the Paris
Agreement goals, the majority of scenarios
reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) rely heavily
on the assumption that negative emissions
technologies — mostly bioenergy with
carbon capture and storage (BECCS) — will
be scaled up later this century to remove
excess carbon from the atmosphere. This
assumption has come under significant
criticism in recent years, however. Scaling
BECCS would require massive amounts
of agricultural land and water for biofuels,
which raises questions about land and
water availability, competition with food
production, emissions from land-use
change, water depletion and biodiversity
loss10. Alternative carbon removal strategies
such as direct air carbon capture and
storage (DACCS) may avoid some of these
problems, but could use up to 50% of the
world’s current electricity generation to
achieve the carbon removal rates assumed in
existing scenarios, making it more difficult
to decarbonize global energy supply11. In
both cases, there are questions about the
availability of sufficient storage capacity for
captured carbon12.
In light of these uncertainties, scientists
increasingly regard reliance on negative
emissions technologies to be speculative
and risky8,1315. If this approach fails,
we will be locked into a high-temperature
trajectory from which it would be
impossible to escape. It is also worth
noting that even if BECCS or DACCS were
to succeed at scale, this might address
emissions but it would do nothing to address
overshoot of other planetary boundaries,
such as land-use change, biodiversity loss
and biogeochemical flows, all of which are
being exacerbated by rising resource use.
Relying on negative emissions technologies
is not an ecologically coherent approach to
the crisis we face.
If we dial down our assumptions about
negative emissions, the only way to achieve
the Paris climate goals is to significantly
reduce energy demand, making it easier
to accomplish rapid decarbonization. This
approach is represented in a number of
existing scenarios, and is exemplified by the
low energy demand (LED) scenario that was
highlighted in the IPCC’s Special Report on
1.5 °C (ref. 16). In this scenario, global
final energy demand declines from
400 EJ yr–1 to 245 EJ yr–1 in 2050, with these
reductions accomplished in large part by
declining resource use, particularly in the
Global North.
The principle of reducing energy and
resource use represents a safer and more
ecologically coherent approach to climate
mitigation. But because the LED and other
low-demand scenarios developed with
Integrated Assessment Models presuppose
continued GDP growth, they can only
achieve these reductions by assuming a
dramatic absolute decoupling of global
GDP from energy and resources. In the
LED scenario, for example, improvements
in annual energy intensity (energy
consumption per unit of GDP) increase
from 1.5% per year (the average from 2010
to 2020) to a staggering 5.2% per year during
the next decade. Similar assumptions feature
in other high-decoupling scenarios reviewed
by the IPCC17.
Several studies have raised questions
about the feasibility of achieving absolute
decoupling on the scale required by these
scenarios. Empirical evidence demonstrates
a strong relationship between GDP and
energy use18. Relative decoupling has been
occurring for most countries, particularly
high-income countries, but we must be
mindful of the extent to which the latter is
an effect of the geographical disjuncture
between where production takes place and
where GDP is captured. At regional and
global levels, there is no evidence of absolute
decoupling18, and modelled projections
indicate that with existing growth
trajectories, absolute reductions in energy
use are unlikely to be achieved19.
One possible reason for this is that in
a growth-oriented system, productivity
improvements are leveraged to expand
production and consumption20, often
leading to large rebound effects that are
not accounted for in existing scenarios17,21.
These conclusions hold despite a significant
shift to services and digitalization over
the past decades. In fact, tertiarization in
industrialized countries22, as well as the
efficiency improvements achieved through
digitalization23, have led to increases in
energy use and CO2 emissions.
The same is true when it comes to
resource use. The empirical record
demonstrates a strong relationship between
GDP and material footprint18, and modelled
scenarios show that under growth-as-usual
conditions absolute reductions in resource
use are unlikely to be achieved at a global
level even with dramatic efficiency
improvements, in large part because of
rebound effects3.
The post-growth alternative
Given these uncertainties, it is possible
that existing approaches may fail to
deliver the mitigation that is required to
achieve the Paris climate targets. It makes
sense therefore to consider alternative
post-growth scenarios that would reduce
the pressure to rely so heavily on negative
emissions and absolute decoupling.
Towards this end, we can build on the core
insights of the low-demand scenarios,
accepting that significant reductions of
energy and resource use are necessary
in order to make rapid decarbonization
feasible, while pursuing sufficiency-oriented
policies in addition to efficiency
improvements to get there.
Post-growth scholarship calls for
high-income nations to shift away from
pursuing GDP growth and to focus
instead on provisioning for human needs
and well-being, such as by reducing
inequality, ensuring living wages, shortening
the working week to maintain full
employment, and guaranteeing universal
access to public healthcare, education,
transportation, energy, water and affordable
housing. This approach enables strong
social outcomes to be achieved without
growth, and creates space for countries to
scale down ecologically destructive and
socially less necessary forms of production
and consumption, as proposed by
degrowth research24.
In high-income nations, possible policy
interventions might include the following.
In the transportation sector:
shifting from private cars to public and
non-motorized transportation; and
reducing air travel in a fair and just way, for
example by removing subsidies for aviation,
equalizing or increasing taxes on aviation
fuels compared with those of land transport,
and introducing frequent flyer levies or a
rationing framework.
In the industrial sector: extending
product lifespans through warranty
mandates, rights to repair, and regulations
against planned obsolescence; incentivizing
and institutionalizing second-hand
product purchases over new; regionalizing
production and consumption where possible
to reduce freight; limiting advertizing; and
shifting taxes from labour to resources.
In the agricultural sector: minimizing
food waste; reducing industrial production
of ruminant meat and dairy, while shifting to
healthier plant-based diets; and prioritizing
agroecological methods to sequester carbon
and restore biodiversity.
In the buildings sector: promoting
maintenance and retrofits over new
construction; improving efficiency and
reducing energy use of existing buildings;
reducing the average size of new dwellings;
introducing progressive property taxes; and
mandating net zero energy certifications.
In cities: urban planning to enable
15-minute urban centres requiring little
motorized travel and sufficiently compact
to encourage reasonable-sized dwellings;
and reallocation of some public urban
space from parking structures and roads to
infrastructure for non-motorized mobility.
Interventions such as these would make
it possible to achieve rapid decarbonization
consistent with the Paris Agreement goals,
without relying so heavily on negative
emissions technologies and productivity
improvements25. A recent study modelling
some of these interventions, with equitable
access to the energy services required for
decent living, brings global final energy
demand to as low as 150 EJ, well below the
LED and other IPCC scenarios6.
Finally, it is important to take global
justice considerations into account. Existing
climate scenarios maintain a significant
disparity in per capita energy use between
the Global North and Global South26,27.
There is some relative convergence in
certain scenarios, but none assume an
absolute convergence. This approach is
morally problematic, politically untenable
(why should Global South negotiators
accept such scenarios?), and potentially
inconsistent with human development
objectives. Instead, we should explore
convergence scenarios, reducing excess
throughput in the Global North and
increasing necessary throughput in the
Global South so that energy and resource
use converge at per capita levels that are
consistent with universal human welfare and
ecological stability.
Post-growth mitigation scenarios
All climate mitigation scenarios envision
plausible but not-yet-realized future
transformations. We hold that socially and
politically ambitious post-growth scenarios
merit equal consideration to technologically
ambitious scenarios, and should be included
alongside them28. Given the enormous
challenge of confronting the climate crisis,
and following the precautionary principle,
modellers should consider a wider range
of policy options in order to expand the
public debate about climate mitigation,
and to reflect the plurality of visions for a
sustainable world.
This requires diversifying the frameworks
used in modelling experiments. The
narratives of the Shared Socioeconomic
Pathways (SSPs) assume that even
moderately slower rates of economic growth
(such as in SSP3 and SSP4) are associated
with deepening inequalities, regional
rivalries and less technological innovation,
therefore increasing the challenges
of mitigation29. But the literature in
post-growth economics shows that it doesn’t
have to be this way; high-income nations
can maintain economic stability, invest
in innovation and achieve strong social
outcomes without the need for additional
growth, thereby making mitigation easier
to achieve7,30,31.
The SSPs and Integrated Assessment
Models should be updated, or new ones
created, to incorporate frameworks
developed by research in social metabolism,
industrial ecology32 and ecological
economics7, so that post-growth scenarios
can be successfully modelled. Such
alternative frameworks would illuminate
new possibilities and help broaden the range
of policy options for public debate.
Jason Hickel1,2 ✉ , Paul Brockway  3,
Giorgos Kallis4, Lorenz Keyßer  5,
Manfred Lenzen  6, Aljoša Slameršak  2,
Julia Steinberger7 and Diana Ürge-Vorsatz8
1International Inequalities Institute, London School
of Economics, London, UK. 2ICTA, Autonomous
University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain. 3School of
Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds,
UK. 4ICREA and ICTA, Autonomous University
of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain. 5Institute for
Environmental Decisions, D-USYS, ETH Zürich,
Zürich, Switzerland. 6ISA, School of Physics,
University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia. 7Institute
of Geography and Sustainability, University of
Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland. 8Department of
Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European
University, Budapest, Hungary.
Published: xx xx xxxx
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G.K. and A.S. acknowledge the financial support
of the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and
Universities, through the ‘Maria de Maeztu’ programme
for Units of Excellence (CEX2019-000940-M).
P.B.s time was funded by the UK Research and Innovation
Council, supported under EPSRC Fellowship award
Competing interests
The authors declare no competing interests.
... Finally, by associating a low-carbon energy transition with high growth outcomes, existing scenarios represent only one side of the ongoing argument in the community of climate mitigation researchers. As my fellow co-authors and I pointed out in the article Urgent need for post-growth scenarios (Hickel et al., 2021a), IPCC scenarios only represent the narratives that assume significant absolute decoupling between the emissions and growth, even though the possibility of sufficient absolute decoupling has been contested at length in the literature Hickel and Kallis, 2020;Parrique et al., 2019). Meanwhile, the other side of the debate, represented by the post-growth (Jackson, 2019), degrowth and sufficiency (Millward-Hopkins et al., 2020) literature, is still omitted from the scenarios of successful mitigation produced by IAMs, despite the fact that these narratives have been common-place in the climate mitigation debate since "The Limits to Growth" was published in 1972. ...
... To decarbonise fast enough to keep global warming under 1.5°C (without gambling on negative emissions), wealthy countries must scale down excess production and consumption to enable a faster transition to low-carbon energy. Low-income countries should be granted access to the finance and technology necessary to deploy modern renewable energy systems sufficient to provide decent living for all, and they should have the freedom to organise energy use and economic capacity around meeting national needs (Hickel et al., 2021a). Global energy use should converge at a level that is sufficient for human wellbeing and compatible with keeping global warming to no more than 1.5°C, without gambling on dangerous technologies (Keyßer and Lenzen, 2021;Kuhnhenn et al., 2020). ...
... In light of this work, there is an urgent need to consider climate mitigation scenarios that do not rely on high economic growth as the default assumption. The case for 'post-growth' scenarios has already been articulated in the literature (Hickel et al., 2021a;Keyßer and Lenzen, 2021), but such scenarios are not yet represented in existing climate mitigation scenarios, such as the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) , which have been used as the main point of reference in the IPCC scenario literature (IPCC, 2018c;Stocker et al., 2013). ...
Full-text available
There is broad scientific consensus that to avoid catastrophic climate change, global warming should be stabilised well below 2 °C compared to the pre-industrial period. Alarmingly, the window of opportunity to bring down greenhouse gas emissions in line with this objective is rapidly closing. Existing climate mitigation literature agrees that the time when gradual emission reductions could address the issue of climate change is over, and that nothing short of a profound transformation of the energy system, economy, and lifestyles is required to accomplish the necessary emission reductions. Multiple scenarios have been produced by integrated assessment models (IAMs) that explore different mitigation avenues to accomplish a low-carbon energy transition. In this thesis, I analyse whether existing scenarios adequately represent biophysical constraints to the transition. Moreover, I explore if existing scenarios consider the full range of mitigation options to reduce emissions, and whether the scenarios assume adequate energy to enable a flourishing life for all. Finally, I discuss potential implications that a transition to a low-carbon energy system may have for the economy. Existing mitigation scenarios estimate emissions and energy pathways that would be compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5‒2 °C. However, at present, these scenarios do not estimate the amount of energy needed to build and maintain a low-carbon energy system, nor the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be associated with such a transition. This is a major gap in the literature, as it remains unclear how much of the remaining carbon budget would be tied to the transition, and how much of it would effectively remain for society to produce goods and provide services using fossil fuels. I calculate that the emissions associated with the transition could range from 70 GtCO2 to 395 GtCO2, with a cross-scenario average of 195 GtCO2. This corresponds to approximately 0.1 °C of additional global warming. I show that the transition could drive up the energy requirements of the energy system and may require a decrease in per capita net energy use of 10%‒34% during the initial push for the transition. Nonetheless, in contrast to what has been argued in previous studies, a low-carbon energy transition would not necessarily lead to a decline in the Energy-Return-on-Energy-Invested (EROI) of the overall energy system in the long-term. I conclude that a continued growth in energy use may be incompatible with the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change. Although use of negative emissions technologies may unlock additional energy from fossil fuels, the overall increase in available energy may be exaggerated in existing scenarios, due to overestimation of realistic mitigation potential and disregard of the high energy requirements of these technologies. Furthermore, use of negative emissions technologies may decrease the efficiency of energy provisioning to society, leading to increased economic expenditure for energy. The conclusion that a low-carbon energy transition may limit the prospects of growth in energy use raises concern, as energy is a key requirement to produce goods and services. How do existing mitigation scenarios address the socioeconomic implications of this energy constraint? I find that existing mitigation scenarios perpetuate the striking inequalities of energy use between the Global North and Global South. Lack of equitable convergence is further underlined by the scenarios that assume negative emissions. Although these scenarios allow for higher global energy use, the additional energy is overwhelmingly allocated to the countries in the Global North, which have the highest per-capita energy consumption. Moreover, existing mitigation scenarios do not consider that limits to energy growth may have a negative effect on the economy. On the contrary, mitigation scenarios typically assume economic growth is to increase in the future, despite lower energy use. To square economic growth with decreasing energy use, mitigation scenarios assume rapid and unprecedented improvements in the efficiency of energy use in the global economy. However, feasibility of accomplishing such improvements has been fiercely contested. To explore if there are alternative pathways to accomplishing a low-carbon energy transition, I outline a series of scenarios that assume lower rates of global economic growth. I demonstrate that lower economic growth makes it possible to accomplish sufficient emission reductions with more moderate energy efficiency improvements and a slower build-up of a low-carbon energy system. I discuss the concerns regarding negative implications that lower growth may have on social wellbeing and the ability to pay for the transition. I argue that post-growth policies focused on wealth redistribution may lead to desirable social outcomes without compromising the aim of avoiding dangerous climate change.
... Second, demand-side solutions support staying within planetary boundaries Matson et al. 2016;Hillebrand et al. 2018;Andersen and Quinn 2020;UNDESA 2020;Hickel et al. 2021;Keyßer and Lenzen 2021). Demand side solutions entail fewer environmental risks than many supply-side technologies (Von Stechow et al. 2016). ...
... Demand side solutions entail fewer environmental risks than many supply-side technologies (Von Stechow et al. 2016). Additionally they make carbon dioxide removal technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) less relevant ) but modelling studies (Grubler et al. 2018;Hickel et al. 2021;Keyßer and Lenzen 2021) still require ecosystem-based carbon dioxide removal. In the IPCC's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5) ...
... Systems-dynamics models linking strong emissions-reducing policies and strong social equity policies show that a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability is possible, even without economic growth(Kallis et al. 2012;Jackson and Victor 2016;Stuart et al. 2017;Chapman and Fraser 2019;D'Alessandro et al. 2019;Gabriel and Bond 2019;Huang et al. 2019;Victor 2019). Such degrowth pathways may be crucial in combining technical feasibility of mitigation with social development goals(Hickel et al. 2021;Keyßer and Lenzen 2021). ...
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Chapter 5 (Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation), explores how mitigation interacts with meeting human needs and access to services. It explores, inter alia: sustainable production and consumption; patterns of development and indicators of wellbeing; the role of culture, social norms, practices and behaviour changes; the sharing economy and circular economy; and policies facilitating behavioural and lifestyle change. This chapter is part of the Working Group III contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Electronic copies of this chapter are available from the IPCC website; and
... Added to disciplinary skills, students urgently need to develop skills as to how to include other scientific perspectives into their own research domain. 57 Further, while critical research strands criticize the welfare state's dependency on GDP ( Gross domestic product) growth, and c onsider it an obstacle to transformation, other research fields like mainstream economy promote a continuation of growth in the context of a "green economy". However, critical research shows that it is necessary to achieve human well-being other than through economic growth if planetary boundaries are to be respected. ...
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The climate crisis constitutes the largest threat to public health in the 21st century, from which several climate-sensitive direct or indirect health risks emerge. It is noteworthy that the health impact of the climate crisis disproportionately falls on groups with lower socio-economic status, which generally have lower adaptation capacities. There is, however, a huge potential for health policy to contribute to climate change mitigation and for climate policy to reduce disease burden. Policymakers are becoming increasingly aware of the link between health and climate. This nexus is further correlated with inequality, the latter here understood as the unequal distribution of social, political, economic and environmental resources, and health inequity. At the EU level, commitments to reducing net GHG emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990, by the year 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 have been formulated within the framework of the European Green Deal and the Fit-for-55 package. Yet, neither does the European Green Deal consider health explicitly, nor does the EU4Health Programme include climate change mitigation or adaptation among its key objectives. Against this background, this policy brief explores risks associated with acting in silos and thus neglecting the interactions between climate, health and inequality, and looks for potential synergies when establishing a sound cli- mate-health-inequality nexus. It further addresses the question as to where the barriers lie for successfully exploiting these synergies between health and climate policy fields. This research showcases potential pitfalls when climate policy does not con- sider health, and when health policy does not take into account interactions with climate change. It also demonstrates that the interdependencies of climate and health create various opportunities. This policy brief is concluded with recommendations for policymakers with a view to addressing health, climate and ine- quality in an integrated manner. These recommendations seek to strengthen the climate-health-equality-nexus in the EU.
... Strategies must be aimed at profound social reorganization that reduces society's energy/material needs [34], and we must do this quickly because we are in a state of emergency. In accordance with the phase transition model described above, the future will bring more frequent and more sustained extreme situations and more social instability, due to widespread impoverishment and the lack of a constant/growing supply of energy/materials. ...
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AR6 IPCC reports give divergent messages about the different socio-economic transition approaches to deal with the current climate emergency. The dangers of not giving a clear message to policymakers and to society on the need of changing the current socio-economic paradigm are considerable: to fall in the SSP3-7.0 scenario, which is conducive to the collapse of our current civilization. In this work, key variables to assess the main functionalities of global socio-economy are analyzed under a system dynamics approach. This allows for understanding what the evolution is of our current socio-economy in a framework of climate change and resource depletion. The aim of this work is to provide a different perspective on socio-economic evolution by identifying similar characteristics in the worst-case IPCC scenarios with historical behavior in complex societies. From such a historical perspective and the current system evolution, a conceptual model is proposed to explain our globalized complex system near to a phase transition. Then, phase transition correspondences from the model to the current socio-economic system are proposed and a series of corresponding preventive measures (in terms of social actions, economic measures, and their linked policies) are suggested to avoid collapse scenarios.
... However, the dominance of neoliberalism limits the extent of change. A key limitation is that these changes do not address the need to reduce superfluous consumption, which is an essential component of an adequate response to the public and planetary health crisis [12][13][14][15]. Instead, the dominance of neoliberalism means that not reducing overall revenue (consumption) is considered a benefit of these limited changes. ...
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Public higher education institutions (PHEIs) have a unique and important role in responding to the public and planetary health crisis—they are centers of research on public and planetary health and of learning for young people, and have a public good mission. Yet, PHEI campus food environments are predominantly unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable, and associated with unhealthy food choices and unhealthy students. PHEIs are addressing high levels of student food insecurity (FI) that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups. Yet, because student FI is measured as individual access to adequate quantities of food, campus responses to FI often overlook unhealthy food environments. These environments result from neoliberal PHEI business policies that prioritize short-term revenue and encourage superfluous consumption, and unhealthy, environmentally harmful diets. PHEIs need to move beyond neoliberalism to honor their public good mission, including prioritizing health, the environment, and equity, in decisions about food on campus. My goal in this perspective is to encourage inclusive campus discussion about why this change is required to adequately respond to the crisis of student, public, and planetary health, and about how to begin.
... Liu et al. [29], in their eponymous article, have stressed the "Energy constraints to increasing complexity in the biosphere". The paper by Hickel et al. [30] is one among many that argue for "degrowth", the idea that the sustainability problems the world faces cannot be solved in a growth economy. As was observed at COP26, decision making about our future climate has arrived at the last-chance saloon, and the time we have available leaves us with little choice; deep reductions in energy consumption are our sole remaining option. ...
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In 2022, the record of extreme weather events already includes deep droughts in Sichuan province, China, and California, US; floods inundating a third of Pakistan and serious and repeated flooding in Eastern Australia; heat waves and drought in Europe; and wildfires in Europe and the western US [...]
... reducing the need to travel by increasing homeworking. The research also adds weight to the broader message emerging from environmental sciences that climate change and other ecological challenges cannot be addressed without fundamental changes to the global economy, and the growth-dependency and mass inequality that underpin it [7][8][9]. ...
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Low energy demand pathways may be essential for the transition to net zero. However, to date, the distributional impacts of these futures have been neglected, leaving open crucial questions about living standards and inequality. Using the lens of ‘decent living energy’, this article begins to piece together the puzzle by providing a distributional analysis of a recent low-energy-demand, net-zero scenario for the UK. We find that if the UK succeeded in following a low-energy pathway, but income and energy inequality continued increasing at the current rate, 9 million people could lack sufficient energy for meeting decent living standards in 2050. Theoretically, this can be mitigated either by achieving considerable reductions in income inequality, or by ensuring highly energy-efficient technologies are available at all income levels as this reduces the energy required to meet decent living standards. Reviewing various specific policies that could forge a low-energy-demand future, we find some are inherently equitable and others can easily be designed to be so. However, policies could also prove regressive in numerous ways. We thus argue that an equitable, socially-just, low-energy-demand policy pathway would need to be responsive and dynamic, bold and targeted, and joined-up with respect to both policy implementation and assessment.
Technical Report
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The Bioeconomy is both an enabler and an end for the European Green Deal transformation: achieving the EGD transformation entails transforming the very meaning of sustainable bioeconomy. Among the deepest and most effective leverage points to transform a system are the worldviews driving our behaviours: they yield an enormous power to influence the framings which determine the solution space we explore. Transforming the bioeconomy, thus, requires reflecting on the stories we tell about ourselves, our place in nature, and our relationship with others. Scholars have highlighted how narratives surrounding the EU Bioeconomy have predominantly embraced a “Green Growth” perspective, centred around economic growth, technological innovation, and anthropocentric values, largely ignoring the social and justice dimensions, as well as not questioning the role, relations, and responsibilities of humans in the web of life. These dominant framings are increasingly contested, though, because they have failed to produce the social and ecological outcomes desired. This report introduces perspectives which have been under-represented in the Bioeconomy discourse and integrates them into an alternative vision for a “green, just and sufficient bioeconomy”. This vision places environmental sustainability and social equity at its core, regardless of economic growth; has an inclusive and participatory perspective; care, respect, and reciprocity for and with other humans and non-humans are core values; technology is important to deliver on the green and just objectives, but ethical considerations for new technologies are openly debated.
Background: For decades, climate researchers have highlighted the unprecedented emissions reductions necessary if we are to meet global mitigation ambitions. To achieve these reductions, the climate change mitigation scenarios that dominate the literature assume large-scale deployment of negative-emissions technologies, but such technologies are unproven and present considerable trade-offs for biodiversity and food systems. In response, energy researchers have postulated low energy demand scenarios as alternatives and others have developed models for estimating the minimum energy requirements for the provision of decent material living standards considered essential for human wellbeing. However, a key question that our study aims to explore is how a climate-safe, low energy demand future, and universal decent living could be achieved simultaneously, given the magnitude of current global inequalities in energy consumption and technological access. Methods: In this modelling study, we combined data that described current global and regional inequalities in energy consumption with scenarios for low energy demand in 2050, and compared the resulting distributions with estimates of decent living energy, drawing all of this data from published academic literature. Using a threshold analysis, we estimated how much of the 2050 global population would fall below the minimum energy required to support human wellbeing if a low energy demand pathway was followed but inequalities in energy consumption remained as wide as they currently are. We then estimated the reductions in energy inequality and increases in technological equity that were required to ensure that no one falls below decent living energy in a climate-safe future. Finally, we speculated about the implications for global income inequalities. Findings: We found that unprecedented reductions in income and energy inequalities are likely to be necessary to simultaneously secure a climate-safe future and decent living standards for all. If global energy use is reduced enough to ensure climate safety, but the extent of energy inequality remains as it is today, more than 4 billion people will not have access to decent living energy. To avoid this occurrence, after remaining essentially flat for 150 years, the Gini coefficient for income inequality globally might have to fall by a factor of two (ie, to a lower extent than for some of the most egalitarian European countries) and at a rate of reduction more than double that observed in the so-called golden age of capitalism. In the Global South (South America, Central America, south Asia, southeast Asia, east Asia, the Middle East, and Africa) even greater reductions in inequality would be required, unless the average living standards in the Global North (North America, Europe, Australasia, central Asia, and Japan) and in the Global South fully converged, which would require even more substantial reductions in consumption in the Global North than low energy demand scenarios assume. Interpretation: Resolving the contradiction between the current global economic system (with its inherent inequalities) and the need for planetary and human health necessitates transformational change. Reflecting on the limitations of our analysis, we discuss four ways that these global challenges could be met without the need for such drastic reductions in inequality. Funding: The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions and the Leverhulme Trust.
Why, despite all we know about the causes and harms of global heating, has so little effective action been taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and what we can do to change that? This book explains the mechanisms and impacts of the climate crisis, traces the history and reasons behind the lack of serious effort to combat it, describes some people's ongoing scepticism and how to shift it, and motivates an urgent program of action. It argues that the pathway to stopping dangerous global heating will require a much larger mobilization of advocacy and activism to impel decision makers to abandon fossil fuels, and transition to renewable energy and electrification embedded in a political and social framework guided by justice principles. It is an excellent resource for students and researchers on the climate crisis, the need for a renewable energy transition, and the current blocks to progress.
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The majority of global energy scenarios anticipate a structural break in the relationship between energy consumption and gross domestic product (GDP), with several scenarios projecting absolute decoupling, where energy use falls while GDP continues to grow. However, there are few precedents for absolute decoupling, and current global trends are in the opposite direction. This paper explores one possible explanation for the historical close relationship between energy consumption and GDP, namely that the economy-wide rebound effects from improved energy efficiency are larger than is commonly assumed. We review the evidence on the size of economy-wide rebound effects and explore whether and how such effects are taken into account within the models used to produce global energy scenarios. We find the evidence base to be growing in size and quality, but remarkably diverse in terms of the methodologies employed, assumptions used, and rebound mechanisms included. Despite this diversity, the results are broadly consistent and suggest that economy-wide rebound effects may erode more than half of the expected energy savings from improved energy efficiency. We also find that many of the mechanisms driving rebound effects are overlooked by integrated assessment and global energy models. We therefore conclude that global energy scenarios may underestimate the future rate of growth of global energy demand.
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The majority of scenarios that meet the goals of the Paris agreements exceed sustainability and precautionary thresholds in land, biodiversity and BECCS potentials. Risks may be best avoided by demand‐side driven rapid decarbonization and less land‐intensive carbon dioxide removal technologies.
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Reducing the energy demand has become a key mechanism for limiting climate change, but there are practical limitations associated with large energy savings in a growing global economy and, importantly, its lower-income parts. Using new data on energy and GDP, we show that adopting the same near-term low-energy growth trajectory in all regions in IPCC scenarios limiting global warming to 1.5 °C presents an unresolved policy challenge. We discuss this challenge of combining energy demand reductions with robust income growth for the 6.4 billion people in middle- and low-income countries in light of the reliance of economic development on industrialization. Our results highlight the importance of addressing limits to energy demand reduction in integrated assessment modelling when regional economic development is powered by industrialization and of instead exploring faster energy supply decarbonization. Insights from development economics and other disciplines could help generate plausible assumptions given the financial, investment and stability issues involved.
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Energy modelling can assist national decision makers in determining strategies that achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, three key challenges for the modelling community are emerging under this radical climate target that needs to be recognized and addressed. A first challenge is the need to represent new mitigation options not currently represented in many energy models. We emphasize here the under representation of end-use sector demand-side options due to the traditional supply side focus of many energy models, along with issues surrounding robustness in deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options. A second challenge concerns the types of models used. We highlight doubts about whether current models provide sufficient relevant insights on system feasibility, actor behaviour, and policy effectiveness. A third challenge concerns how models are applied for policy analyses. Priorities include the need for expanding scenario thinking to incorporate a wider range of uncertainty factors, providing insights on target setting, alignment with broader policy objectives, and improving engagement and transparency of approaches. There is a significant risk that without reconsidering energy modelling approaches, the role that the modelling community can play in providing effective decision support may be reduced. Such support is critical, as countries seek to develop new Nationally Determined Contributions and longer-term strategies over the next few years.
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Energy modelling can assist national decision makers in determining strategies that achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, three key challenges for the modelling community are emerging under this radical climate target that needs to be recognized and addressed. A first challenge is the need to represent new mitigation options not currently represented in many energy models. We emphasize here the under representation of end-use sector demand-side options due to the traditional supply side focus of many energy models, along with issues surrounding robustness in deploying carbon dioxide removal (CDR) options. A second challenge concerns the types of models used. We highlight doubts about whether current models provide sufficient relevant insights on system feasibility, actor behaviour, and policy effectiveness. A third challenge concerns how models are applied for policy analyses. Priorities include the need for expanding scenario thinking to incorporate a wider range of uncertainty factors, providing insights on target setting, alignment with broader policy objectives, and improving engagement and transparency of approaches. There is a significant risk that without reconsidering energy modelling approaches, the role that the modelling community can play in providing effective decision support may be reduced. Such support is critical, as countries seek to develop new Nationally Determined Contributions and longer-term strategies over the next few years. Key policy insights • Energy systems that reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions will be radically different to those of today, necessitating a modelling analysis re-think. • On modelled options for mitigation, a range of demand-side measures are often absent resulting in a risk of over-reliance on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and leading to concerns over robustness of corresponding pathways. • Regarding models for policy, there is significant scope for improvements, including the use of scenarios that help imagine the radical change that will be required, techniques for improving the robustness of emerging strategies, and better alignment with broader policy goals.
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It is increasingly clear that averting ecological breakdown will require drastic changes to contemporary human society and the global economy embedded within it. On the other hand, the basic material needs of billions of people across the planet remain unmet. Here, we develop a simple, bottom-up model to estimate a practical minimal threshold for the final energy consumption required to provide decent material livings to the entire global population. We find that global final energy consumption in 2050 could be reduced to the levels of the 1960s, despite a population three times larger. However, such a world requires a massive rollout of advanced technologies across all sectors, as well as radical demand-side changes to reduce consumption – regardless of income – to levels of sufficiency. Sufficiency is, however, far more materially generous in our model than what those opposed to strong reductions in consumption often assume.
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The Paris Agreement establishes an international covenant to reduce emissions in line with holding the increase in temperature to ‘well below 2°C … and to pursue … 1.5°C.’ Global modelling studies have repeatedly concluded that such commitments can be delivered through technocratic adjustments to contemporary society, principally price mechanisms driving technical change. However, as emissions have continued to rise, so these models have come to increasingly rely on the extensive deployment of highly speculative negative emissions technologies (NETs). Moreover, in determining the mitigation challenges for industrialized nations, scant regard is paid to the language and spirit of equity enshrined in the Paris Agreement. If, instead, the mitigation agenda of ‘developed country Parties’ is determined without reliance on planetary scale NETs and with genuine regard for equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, the necessary rates of mitigation increase markedly. This is evident even when considering the UK and Sweden, two nations at the forefront of developing ‘progressive’ climate change legislation and with clear emissions pathways and/or quantitative carbon budgets. In both cases, the carbon budgets underpinning mitigation policy are halved, the immediate mitigation rate is increased to over 10% per annum, and the time to deliver a fully decarbonized energy system is brought forward to 2035-40. Such a challenging mitigation agenda implies profound changes to many facets of industrialized economies. This conclusion is not drawn from political ideology, but rather is a direct consequence of the international community’s obligations under the Paris Agreement and the small and rapidly dwindling global carbon budget. Key Policy Insights • Without a belief in the successful deployment of planetary scale negative emissions technologies, double-digit annual mitigation rates are required of developed countries, from 2020, if they are to align their policies with the Paris Agreement’s temperature commitments and principles of equity. • Paris-compliant carbon budgets for developed countries imply full decarbonization of energy by 2035-40, necessitating a scale of change in physical infrastructure reminiscent of the post-Second World War Marshall Plan. This brings issues of values, measures of prosperity and socio-economic inequality to the fore. • The stringency of Paris-compliant pathways severely limits the opportunity for inter-sectoral emissions trading. Consequently aviation, as with all sectors, will need to identify policies to reduce emissions to zero, directly or through the use of zero carbon fuels. • The UK and Swedish governments’ emissions pathways imply a carbon budget of at least a factor of two greater than their fair contribution to delivering on the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-2°C commitment.
This article investigates the effect of digitalization on energy consumption. Using an analytical model, we investigate four effects: (1) direct effects from the production, usage and disposal of information and communication technologies (ICT), (2) energy efficiency increases from digitalization, (3) economic growth from increases in labor and energy productivities and (4) sectoral change/tertiarization from the rise of ICT services. The analysis combines empirical and theoretical findings from debates on decoupling energy consumption from economic growth and from debates on green IT and ICT for sustainability. Our main results: Effects 1 and 3 tend to increase energy consumption. Effects 2 and 4 tend to decrease it. Furthermore, our analysis suggests that the two increasing effects prevail so that, overall, digitalization increases energy consumption. These results can be explained by four insights from ecological economics: (a) physical capital and energy are complements in the ICT sector, (b) increases in energy efficiency lead to rebound effects, (c) ICT cannot solve the difficulty of decoupling economic growth from exergy, (d) ICT services are relatively energy intensive and come on top of former production. In future, digitalization can only boost sustainability when it fosters effects 2 and 4 without promoting effects 1 and 3.