The catastrophic impacts of climate change are increasing in their frequency; extreme weather disasters have increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years whilst the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. The mounting social and ecological crises we are facing have led to calls for a different kind of economic system, one that goes beyond green consumerism and challenges the logic of growth itself. Could the degrowth economy be the answer? 

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that the global community had 12 years to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or face an inevitable two degrees of global warming. It warned that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, targets that remain stubbornly out of reach. We are currently on track for three degrees of warming by the end of the century as GHG emissions have increased by 57% since 1992, despite the signing of multiple climate conventions. Scientists estimate that if we are to have even a 50-50 chance of meeting our targets, wealthy industrialised countries will need to cut GHGs by 8-10% per year, a level that is virtually unprecedented. The pledges set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement and at climate negotiations since, are voluntary: governments are under no legal obligation to reduce emissions and hit their targets, making our achievement of them all the more unlikely.  

The solutions promoted by governments of industrialised nations during negotiations tend to focus on technological fixes and carbon markets which will, supposedly, allow for economic expansion whilst also rescuing the planet from ecological destruction. Economic growth has become the benchmark of a country’s success, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) taking precedence over all other indicators, including happiness and well-being. Yet economic growth is inextricably tied to increased energy demand as well as increased material consumption and waste; ​​research shows that up to three-quarters of the annual resource inputs to industrial economies ends up as environmental waste within just one year. IPCC scientists have argued that the only feasible way to reduce our GHG emissions and halt catastrophic global warming is to actively scale down the material throughput of the economy. This approach is what is known as degrowth, and in recent years it has been gaining traction as an alternative economic and social system that could help to achieve the essential emission reductions whilst also improving standards of living.

What is Degrowth?

At the core of degrowth is the fact that economic growth cannot be decoupled from material throughput at the scale needed to reduce resource use and keep us in line with planetary boundaries. Degrowth is a Euro-centric field of study, and as such aims to scale down the resource use of high income nations’ economies by shrinking sectors that are ecologically damaging and offer little social benefit, such as the fossil fuel and fast fashion industries. It does not work to shrink our existing capitalist economy which is designed only to grow – doing so would likely lead to recessions and the dire social consequences they entail. Rather, degrowth seeks a move to a different kind of economy altogether, one that does not pursue growth nor measure success only in terms of economic expansion, but one that creates an ecologically and socially just society for all. 

Degrowth challenges the notion that economic growth should be a social objective, and promotes other measures of progress such as the Genuine Progress Indicator which separates the notion of societal progress from economic growth. Throughout societies across the globe, there is a pervasive assumption that lives can only be improved through economic growth; our pursuit of it has taken over our way of thinking about the world and an increase in income has become the very object of modern society. However, a growing body of research suggests that economic growth beyond a level that satisfies basic needs does not improve well-being. It shows, in fact, that happiness is found in areas beyond the scope of wealth, such as increased time for family and leisure, and that greater investments in public services are more beneficial to welfare than increases in income. Such investments can also improve resilience to climate shocks and extreme weather as well as helping to lower emissions, e.g. through investments in public transport. 

Degrowth Economy: How Does It Work?

Degrowth depends on a number of progressive policies, at the centre of which is the equitable redistribution of existing income. This is key to ensuring that welfare can be improved for everyone without relying on economic growth and the material and energy throughput that inevitably comes with it. In OECD countries, income inequalities are at a 30-year high and, whilst the top 1% gets ever richer, the bottom 40% are facing economic decline and increasing poverty, a statistic that clearly points to the failures of our current economic system. As well as the redistribution of income, the degrowth movement also advocates for other progressive policies including carbon taxes, fossil fuel divestment, and the transfer of inheritances to the state. A shorter working week and job sharing is another key element that seeks to both reduce environmental burdens and improve welfare by freeing up leisure time. To mitigate the loss of wages due to shortened work hours, a basic income and job guarantee would be implemented, as would access to high-quality public services, funded by progressive taxation schemes. 

Rather than operating as a rigid political or economic mandate, the degrowth movement sees itself as an umbrella concept under which a range of social issues and ideas can come together with the ultimate goal of enhancing quality of life whilst living within planetary boundaries. Some academics argue that it should be used to express a general idea or direction, one that moves us away from the excessive production and consumption of our current capitalist economy and unites all those disenfranchised by economic growth. 

Although, in terms of politics and policies, degrowth remains a fringe concept, there are certain elements that are beginning to be seen around the world. A number of countries have adopted a four day working week in an effort to improve citizen well-being and redress work-life balance. Six countries, amongst them Scotland, Wales and New Zealand, have recently adopted a ‘well-being economy’, which aims to prioritise public and planetary health over economic growth. Though well-being economies share several of degrowth’s basic principles, they don’t explicitly call for certain sectors of the economy to be shrunk, which, according to degrowth scholars, is essential if we are to stay within planetary boundaries. Some have suggested, however, that well-being economies offer a pathway to post-growth concepts such as degrowth and can operate as a starting point in restructuring our economy around sufficiency instead of efficiency and excess.

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