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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

A  protestor holds up her own version of the BP logo, dripping with oil.As names go, the First Exploitation Company sounds like an inspired slight dreamed up by an angry anti-oil campaigner. In fact, it was the original title, coined in 1903, of the troubled company we now know as BP. But then, public relations have never been its strong point.

Over the course of a century BP, in its various guises, has managed to outrage everyone from revolutionary nationalist leaders in the Middle East to Britain’s supposedly closest ally. Now Barack Obama has ensured that BP is Public Enemy No 1 in the United States (tonight, he will make his first address to the nation direct from the White House to stress the point).

In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP is being freely compared in the US to those poster boys of corporate malfeasance, Enron and Worldcom. Beleaguered chief-executive Tony Hayward may not be Bernie Madoff, but hate mail and threatening phone calls have been directed at him and his family. Hayward is now reportedly undergoing training in front of a so-called “murder board” of legal experts to prepare him for the aggressive questioning he will face from the Congressional Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in Washington on Thursday.

BP’s share price is tumbling, as its expected liabilities from the spill – estimated at anywhere up to $40bn (£27bn) – climb so high that the financial markets are giving the company’s debt a “junk” rating. Speculation over BP’s future has ranged from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to a possible takeover by one of its giant rivals, Exxon Mobil or Chevron.

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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

We need a universal banking obligation. It would mean that everyone, by right, would have access to the full range of banking services – whereas at the moment, one of the great fights with the banks has been the way they’ve chosen customers to maximise profitability and created finance deserts for poor communities. On the ground, it propels people into the hands of vulture lenders with baseball bats.

We also need a green investment bank. The big question is how it should be funded. Some suggest creaming off the proceeds of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, or you could have a windfall tax on the fossil fuel companies, or carbon bonds – there are lots of ideas. And here’s one that could be a poetic test case: the Royal Bank of Scotland used to advertise itself as the Oil and Gas Bank. Given that RBS is now in the hands of the taxpayer, why not turn it into the Royal Bank of Sustainability?

Finally, Labour should aim at launching a competition inquiry into the big banks, and breaking them up. The great paradox of what happened after the crash was that banks that were already too big to fail got even bigger. Major action is needed to stop banks holding the country to ransom.

From today’s Guardian. Original article includes contributions from Sunder Katwala, Pam Giddy, Will Straw and Joss Garman.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

We may be in the grip of the worst economic upheaval for half a century, but the UK is still at heart a forward-looking, modern economy, isn’t it? Smogs and satanic mills are things of the past and we have a model that is resource-light and service driven, don’t we?

Perhaps not. In the UK for the first quarter of this year, £1 in every £4 paid in dividends to shareholders came from a single industry: oil and gas. And, from that sector, just two companies – BP and Shell – accounted for the vast majority.

If the banking crisis taught us one thing, it is that putting too many of your economic eggs in one sector’s basket is a very bad idea. In banking it was a bad idea because they practised Narnia-nomics (which is probably a slur on Narnia). With the oil and gas sector it is a bad idea for two reasons, which may seem contradictory: the products are both very damaging and have no long-term future. Unfortunately, however, there’s still enough oil and gas left to cause more damage than the planet can handle (and an awful lot of coal, which people may turn to as the other fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to get).

Where the damage is concerned emissions continue to drive the loss of a climate system conducive to stable, flourishing societies. A combination of steadily rising greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures suggest that in around 78 months we will enter a new, more dangerous category of risk for creeping climatic instability, reason enough perhaps, to disinvest in fossil fuels.

The second reason is that an economy so hard-wired to the oil and gas sector is hitching its future to a long-term loser. We are already decades past the point of peak global oil discoveries, and on the cusp of the peak of oil production.

A new assessment of 14 forecasts of global oil supply underlines how the short-lived empire of oil is already well into its dotage, with the end in sight during our own lifetimes.

Some speculate that the moment at which production levels-off and begins its inexorable decline is already with us. If so, it may be only the recession, which temporarily reduces demand, that is hiding it. Several more forecasts suggest it will happen over the course of this decade – mere seconds away in the calibration of economic planning. Crucially, the study concluded that no credible forecast could put the date more than 20 years away.

Expect to see repeats of BP’s disaster at its Deepwater Horizon rig as companies seek to extend their lives of by exploiting ever-more marginal and hard-to-get reserves. Accidents happen when limits get pushed and an industry becomes increasingly desperate.

While companies like Shell, BP and Exxon may dominate the current economic landscape like leviathans, it is a feature of the end of empires that they seem permanent (especially from within) until, suddenly, they are gone.

All the more important, then, to plan for the inevitable. This is starting to happen. As the peak, plateau and decline of oil production approaches, its price will rise dramatically. Companies that are heavily exposed or, in other words, dependent on the old oil economy, will be at risk. Thinking back to the oil price spike of 2008, the ratings agency Fitch recently reassessed a range of industrial sectors for how vulnerable they will be when oil again knocks on the door of $150 per barrel. Airlines, trucking, chemicals and various consumer goods sectors look to be in big trouble. But railways and renewable energy cash-in.

It’s not just the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico that have fallen victim to our economic dependence on oil, its the climate that we depend on, for example, to grow our food, and will soon also be huge chunks of the economy.

The quicker we arrange a separation between society, the economy and the oil and gas sector, the better. This era-defining problem falls on the watch of the new coalition government. They could start by substantially capitalising the proposed new green investment bank and turning the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland – that once proudly called itself the “oil and gas bank” and is still up to its neck in fossil-fuel financing – into a Royal Bank of Sustainability. More or less we have just the lifetime of this parliament to get money out of oil and into renewables and low-energy infrastructure.

After the bank bailout, we were left with the question, “where did the money go?”. At least if we put our resources into the great transition away from fossil fuels there would be tangible results. We would be looking at a great wave of new employment opportunities, more energy security, a less vulnerable economy and the chance for a better future.

78 months and counting …

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

It’s always hard to imagine a world fundamentally different to the one we encounter everyday. Even when the balance shifts deeply between established political forces, it feels like there might be a new DJ playing different songs but that you’re still at the same party. The days press in on us with familiar routines, demands and a storm force gale of unchanging multimedia information.

Unless, that is, something happens to really break the routine. Wait long enough and something always will. It wasn’t a gaffe, or a TV debate, but a blast that allowed us all to imagine a truly different world during this election campaign, one in which we are reconnnected to the environment.

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano, covered in ice, with a hard-to-pronounce name (Eyjafjallajökull) exploded. Nobody heard it across northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent.

Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to off. Why? Fine dust from the vast billowing cloud thrown up by the volcano was lethal to modern jet engines. Planes that had flown through similar clouds in the past had suffered terrifying, nearly disastrous losses of power. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and possibly a glimpse of a future world in which both climate change and strictly limited oil supplies have clipped the industry’s wings.

Philosophers, poets and stranded travellers filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, of course it was. No one was prepared for it. But suddenly the skies were peaceful. People found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and shared cars. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Most strikingly, as flying was something we thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill.

The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.

Kew Gardens in south London is famous for two things. One is its stunning botanical collection, the other is that it lies on the approach to Heathrow airport. Normally, visitors have their appreciation of nature interrupted by low-flying aircraft every few seconds. If you had visited Kew during the brief ceasefire in the skies in April, you would have seen crowds of people staring in quiet wonderment at what was missing from the air above their heads. Like many others, behind the bluster of the threatened airline industry, I suspect they had the creeping sensation, that thanks to a random geological event on a faraway island, we had all stumbled upon a different and better world.

Of course, this is not what our political masters had planned. Quite the contrary. Typical of rich countries, the British government is planning for the number of air passengers using its airports to treble from around 200 million to 500 million by 2030. And, if aviation is allowed to grow, by 2050 it will account for between half and all of the UK’s acceptable carbon emissions, even if the growth slows down. Yet, those few days in April revealed that even in the most dramatic circumstances, of the complete, sudden, unexpected closure of airspace over northern Europe, we could adapt.

Scandalously, the environment, our underlying physical life support system, has been considered worth barely a mention during the election campaign. But, interestingly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have said they oppose a new runway at Heathrow. With that, and holding recent memories, as the poet put it, of the clear skies’ “silent summons”, perhaps we’ll remember that change is not only possible, it actually happens. Whoever gets elected, they will have about 79 months and counting, to make a real difference on climate change.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

At the turn of the 1900s in the US there was a progressive campaign to establish a shorter, eight-hour working day. It was opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers (Nam) as potentially ruinous to the economy – on much the same grounds that the abolition of slavery, the introduction of the maximum load line in shipping and most other progressive reforms throughout history have been opposed. In the 1920s Nam also lobbied against a shorter, five-day working week. In the 1930s, however, Nam paid for a billboard advertising campaign boasting that the US had the “world’s shortest working hours”, underlining the point with “there’s no way like the American way”. Nothing succeeds like success.

When Barack Obama’s administration finally won its viciously contested plan to provide healthcare insurance to 32 million of its lowest-paid citizens, it subtly changed the chemistry of what might be possible in a range of other policy areas.

Having been on the back foot for much of his first year in power, Obama is emboldened both by success and the awareness that Americans like a winner. In the odd political ecosystem, the survival of health reform has direct implications for the viability of action on climate change. Some connections are obvious, others less so.

Greater weather extremes due to warming, such as heat waves and extreme events, have huge health implications.

So do other impacts related to the intensive use of fossil fuels. Deaths and injury resulting from traffic incidents and respiratory problems linked to transport-related air pollution both figure high on the World Health Organisation’s list of major global health threats.

But there are links, too, in the psychology of the solutions. Insurance is an intelligent, collective way to manage risk. As long as the providers of insurance are not allowed to distort its purpose by milking stakeholders for profit, it means that very many, regular and relatively small individual contributions can provide a very large safety net. Making it mandatory deters free riders and delivers universal cover. As with health, why not also with the climate?

The ban on smoking in public buildings draws another interesting line in the debate on the proper balance between “freedoms from” and “freedoms to”. This is on the basis that one person’s freedom to smoke in a public building denies another person’s freedom to breathe smoke-free air. The greenhouse gas emissions currently contributing to climatic instability could be seen as an issue of “uber passive smoking”, especially for those who like their climates to be friendly and convivial for human society.

Seeing banks like RBS, bailed-out and owned by the public, wriggle and squirm in regard to their fossil fuel investments, is to be reminded of tobacco companies floundering in the court of expert health and public opinion.

On the day that the head of “corporate sustainability” at RBS refuted has bank’s deep involvement in particularly dirty fossil fuel projects, the bank opened an office in Calgary, Canada, the very heart of oil tar sands developments. It was also hard to explain the $7.5bn of financial support given by RBS over two years to a range of the major oil companies.

Can things be turned around in the few years left in which we can make a real difference? Leading figures at the more establishment-friendly end of the environmental spectrum think so. The Last Parliament initiative, co-ordinated by Green Alliance, makes the point that the next government will either lay the foundations for rapid transition to a low carbon economy and keep our options open – or it won’t.

If the latter happens, it will feed the mildly misanthropic pessimism of gurus like James Lovelock, who advocated the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating system.

Unfortunately, according to Lovelock, if the Earth self-regulates under global warming he reckons that will leave life support systems for only around a billion people.

Oddly, though, for a scientist, his lack of faith in human ingenuity is highly unscientific. His implicit message of “abandon hope all ye who enter” the warming world ignores the many occasions throughout history when societies have achieved rapid transition.

The danger is that indulging a complacent negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that change is possible. But if, instead of applying humanity’s immense capacity for creative, community based problem-solving, all some of our best minds do is spoonfeed the “league of no”, our fabulous experiment in civilisation will be written off as a bad April fool’s joke. Eighty months and counting …

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

Debt-fuelled over-consumption is a model broken beyond repair, both economically and environmentally. But which potential chancellor is closest to understanding this, and has the vision to deliver an alternative?

Is it Alistair Darling, who gave the minimum nod necessary on curtailing banking excesses to appease public anger, and seems bent on returning to business as usual? Is it George Osborne, sliding effortlessly into the old Conservative comfort zone of quick, punishing public spending cuts? How quickly people forget that the cuts agenda is driven by a massive private sector, market failure. Or, is it Vince Cable who, of the three, first called the banks’ failure and is most outspoken on reform?

All different, but for all, the future is a just question of when, not if, to make huge spending cuts. None fully sees the big win-win opportunity for major, productive, counter-cyclical public investment in a Green New Deal. It’s the one vision that could create jobs, and build a national housing, energy, food and transport infrastructure fit to flourish in a world of energy shortages and climate change.

So, my vote for next Chancellor goes to Adair Turner, former head of the Confederation of British Industry, chair of the official Climate Change Committee, and now leading the Financial Services Authoriry. He knows the market is often invisibly underwritten by the public realm, sees through the City’s attempts to defend the indefensible and understands the need and benefits of the great economic transition we have to make. He could be the first independent Chancellor, taking office in a hung parliament, symbolising a new politics.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

How should a Green Investment Bank most effectively be set up?
The banking failure laid bare the private sectors’ veiled dependence on the public sphere in bad times. But, a publicly owned Green Investment Bank will be proactive, not just there to pick up the pieces of mistakes made elsewhere. It should provide affordable credit, capital and guarantees, and in the process leverage further investment, but only to groups, companies and initiatives that will help push a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. Capital can be raised from a mixture of bonds, carbon taxes, the redirection of resources held in other part public owned banks and “green” quantitative easing. Working mostly at a large scale, the Green Investment Bank will need a network of more local, sister banks able to provide capital for smaller scale initiatives.

What should it use its financial resources to support?
The priority will be to finance a new low-carbon infrastructure for Britain. From new and renovated low-energy building stock, to a new multi-scale, multi-technology renewable energy power system, to a clean, efficient, transport network with a hugely enhanced role for mass public transit, the bank would be instrumental in rewiring the nation for a low-carbon, high well-being future. In essence, it will help to write a national insurance policy against a future of high and volatile fossil fuel prices, geo-political insecurity and carbon constraints due to global warming.

(originally published in the Guardian)

Like a bad disaster film, the naysayers have been in charge over climate change. It’s not too late to rewrite the final scenes.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

"What? You mean the scientists' prediction of catastrophe was correct?" (Image via Wikipedia)

Every disaster movie has a stock character – the person who tells everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about. Shark? There’s no shark. What could possibly go wrong with that tower block, ship, plane, volcano, dinosaur safari park or paramilitary robot cop with a slightly psychopathic glint in its eye?

Such “don’t worry” confidence is always bullish and reassuring. The motives are mostly financial: to open in time for the holiday season or launch the product ahead of a few safety checks. People fall for it, of course, because they want to believe that things will be OK, that their plans won’t have to change. It always ends badly. In the battered landscapes as the final credits roll, there is little doubt that a false-negative diagnosis costs vastly more than a little healthy caution.

So, how lucky do we feel about the climate threat to civilisation? With a few important exceptions, the media swallowed spin and insinuation from peddlers of doubt about its seriousness, without ever holding them to remotely the same standard of evidence demanded of climate scientists. As a result, he time for meaningful action is shrinking just as fewer appear convinced of the need to act.

There is a fine line between noble self-interrogation (generally a good thing) and liberal self-flagellation (generally pointless, painful and scarring). Why is it that so many avowedly progressive people are drawn anxiously, like moths to the flames of even their most wild-eyed critics? Meanwhile, the latter sail on, blithely unconcerned by doubt or evidence.

And yet what has really changed since the strange convulsion of “sceptics’ hour”? It allowed a peculiar release of tension after the relative failure of much-hyped international negotiations. Then, it slowly dawned on the media that science always was about probabilities, not certainties, and decisions still had to be made on these. A huge, obfuscating dust cloud of doubt was kicked up, but now that it has settled, the landscape is the same, the basic science unaltered. There’s just a lot of grit in people’s eyes. Climate change is still real, happening and without radical action could, in a few short years, move into a phase whereby it becomes very difficult to reverse.

At least, and modestly reassuring, the world is already moving on. For, example, could there be a more symbolic act than GM’s decision to close its factory making the petrol-hungry Hummer, especially after China, rising economic power and its last hope for rescue, pulled out of the deal?

Elsewhere, business as usual no longer goes unquestioned. American web giant Facebook recently announced plans for a massive, energy-intensive new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. When it became clear that coal power plants would help provide its electricity, around 20,000 people formed a group on Facebook, calling on the company to use 100% clean energy with the strapline “We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy“.

Whatever people may say to pollsters, at a deeper level, the need for change is altering expectations for people, companies and governments. The fact that public attitudes seemed to change quickly in the wrong direction also means that they are volatile and could flip again. Perversely, we maybe in the last hurrah of the sceptics, and closer to a positive tipping point in attitude than it seems. Even with plenty on his plate, President Barack Obama took time out to explain the difference between weather and climate systems after heavy snowfall in North America (but melting ice at the winter Olympics).

Students of the disaster film genre won’t be surprised. Generally they adhere to a reliable story arc. In the first act, all seems well until a prescient few stumble across evidence of impending disaster. In the second act they get ignored. False reassurance (often with dubious motives) wins the day. Then, bad things happen. In the final act, with all hell breaking loose, the siren voices are either silenced or left quivering in the face of their own foolhardiness. Some kind of sense wins out.

Real life, though, is a movie whose script we have to write for ourselves. And here we are, stuck in the second act, with the bad things just beginning to happen. Quick, grab the keyboard, the floor’s beginning to shake, we’ve got 81 months, and counting

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

If economics was subject to the same evidence-based scrutiny as climate change, our world would be run very differently. Photo by genericface via Flickr.

The world is not run according to climate science. Amid the almost hysterical jeering since the Copenhagen climate summit, it’s a fact worth remembering. If things were done with one eye carefully checking the planet’s ecological engines and the resource levels in its fuel tank, it would look very different The largest indoor snow park in the world would not, for example, be in the roasting Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai. Public transport would be quick and cheap, and Richard Branson would be an unknown gardener, quietly cycling back and forth to his organically-run allotment.

Yet fear of the likely adjustments needed to halt dangerous climate change seems to fuel the vitriol of the vociferous minority attacking climate science. It’s odd when you think what those changes might be. A cartoon currently going around sums it up. An academic-type gives a lecture, listing the outcomes of climate action: energy independence, clean water, clean air, green jobs, liveable cities, healthy children etc etc, while a man in the audience blusters, “But what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

And, it’s not, of course, a hoax. The basic chemistry of global warming has been understood and remained unchanged for around 200 years. Stories concerning the science in recent weeks have been of the type, “how long can you hold your breath?” Not “can we actually breathe underwater?” At the same time, observed trends on greenhouse gas emissions, measured since the last major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveal the opposite of scaremongering.

If anything, the IPCC has been too conservative, having underestimated how quickly we would be pushed toward dangerous change. Actual carbon emissions have been beyond even their “most fossil-fuel-intensive scenario”. Crowing over the inclusion in its last report of an erroneous date for the melting of Himalayan glaciers drowned out a new report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service, that detailed an “unbroken acceleration in melting” of glaciers around the world.

Sadly, right now, the climate change deniers have little to fear. We have no policies or actions remotely equal to the threat. Why is that? It is partly because the world is not run in respect of basic, well-understood physical laws. It is run according to the dictates of an altogether more variable discipline, economics, whose insights and proposals are subject to a weaker scrutiny. The real world ticks reliably according to the laws on thermodynamics and the conservation of energy. Such consistency cannot be claimed for the notion that a deregulated, greed-driven approach is the most efficient way to organise banking. But what if economic policy was subject to the same standard of evidence and review as climate science?

What would natural science make of the assumptions underlying mainstream economic models? They include the classic assertions that we are all perfectly rational, make choices that are unaffected by the behaviour of others, and that we have “perfect information”, knowing everything important there is to know. Or there’s the one in which an infinite number of small firms compete in open markets with no barriers to entry (think Walmart, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesco, Google). And the idea that consumption can grow infinitely on a finite planet.

Orthodox economics is based on simplifications that so distort the real world as to make it unrecognisable, yet its basic tenets are credulously repeated on an almost daily basis in national newspapers and on television news. A genuinely evidence-based approach to economic policymaking would not produce a system remotely like the one we have, the business-as-usual version that many climate sceptics seem so eager to defend. Given its task, the vast range of subjects covered, the thousands of scientists involved, and the sheer size of its reports, what’s stunning about the IPCC’s work is that comparing it to any economic analysis used to actually run the world is like comparing the complete Oxford English Dictionary to a guide to slang published by the Sunday Sport.

Elsewhere, some voices have called for there to be a separate climate sceptics’ report. On one hand, this misses the point. If the sceptics’ science was good enough to be published in decent, peer-reviewed journals, it would be considered alongside everything else by the IPCC. But on the other hand, subjecting the deniers to the same degree of rigorous review as everyone else is a rather delicious prospect. If that was done, the final report would likely be short indeed.

And, on current trends, it is still the case that by the end of the year 2016, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will make it unlikely that we’ll stay below the critical 2°C temperature rise. It’s 82 months and counting

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

Like a patient waiting for hospital scan results, this week the government nervously anticipates new growth figures for the economy. Any sign of an increase and relief could quickly lead to self-satisfaction about its handling of the recession. Approving nods may be seen later this week in Davos at the World Economic Forum. Why? Because among political and business classes, growth, measured by rising GDP, is considered always a “good thing”. But is it?

The banking crisis taught us that when things look good on paper, if the underlying accounting system is faulty, it can conceal high risk and imminent disaster – as Jared Diamond put it in Collapse, his book about societies throughout history that fell by wrongly estimating the resilience of their environmental life-support systems. What looks like wealth might just be a one-off fire sale of irreplaceable natural capital. Ecologically speaking, he writes, “an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cashflow”.

To avoid collapse the economy has to operate within thresholds that do not critically undermine the things that we depend on on a daily basis. They’re often interconnected, like a sufficiently stable climate, productive farmland, fresh water and a healthy diversity of plants and animals.

On climate change, a new piece of research by the New Economics Foundation thinktank looks at which rates of global economic growth are compatible with prevention of a dangerous level of warming.

It shows that, even with the most optimistic likely uptake of low-carbon energy, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile a growing global economy with a good likelihood of limiting global temperature rise to 2C, the agreed political objective of the European Union, and widely considered the maximum rise to which humanity can adapt without serious difficulty.

In this context, Adair Turner, chair of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change, refers to the pursuit of growth for its own sake as a “false god“. Other work by Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University concludes that: “Economic growth in the OECD cannot be reconciled with a 2C, 3C or even 4C characterisation of dangerous climate change.”

The problem is that growth drowns out the gains from increased efficiency and technological innovation. The New Economics Foundation study looks at by how much growth would need to be delinked from fossil fuels – the so-called carbon intensity of the economy – to reach the mark of climate safety suggested by Nasa climate scientist James Hansen.

Having improved steadily in the late last century, “carbon intensity” changes flatlined over the last decade and even worsened in some years. Against this trend, to avoid dangerous climate change the fall in carbon intensity would need to improve by more than two hundredfold. The economic doctrine of growth collides headlong with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Only so much energy efficiency can be squeezed from a system. The other problem is the counter-intuitive rebound effect spotted by William Stanley Jevons in 1865 when he wrote, “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Increased efficiency tends to lower costs and perversely drives up overall resource use.

Writing in the science journal Nature last year, a multidisciplinary group of scientists identified nine key safe-use planetary resource boundaries, three of which had already been transgressed (climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle to do with farming). We are on the cusp of several others.

So, this week, if you find yourself cheering a return to growth, you may be inadvertently celebrating our acceleration toward an ecological cliff edge and an opportunity missed to find a new, better direction. For example, the economist Herman Daly points out that full employment could be easier to achieve in an economy not addicted to growth because it would reverse “the historical trend of replacing labour with machines and inanimate energy”.

Both the desirability and possibility of never ending growth goes unquestioned in mainstream economics. It’s odd, because the world would be a very strange place if the same was applied in nature. For example, from birth until around six weeks old, a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, it didn’t stop and continued doubling each week, on its first birthday, you would be looking after a very hungry nine billion-tonne pet hamster. There is of course one thing in nature that grows uncontrollably. It’s called cancer and tends to kill its host. So when those growth figures come out, let’s hope the government scans the results for what they really mean.

nef‘s new report Growth isn’t Possible was published today.

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