Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is acting head of the climate and energy programme at nef.

Are we too optimistic about the promise of a magic bullet to solve climate change? Two mechanical engineers argue we are – and the only way to fix climate change is think about an alternative economic model.


Three years ago, I felt like a bit of a loan voice. I’d been increasingly highlighting my concerns about a mounting reliance on a magic bullet (or a number of them) to mitigate against climate change. But, most of the time, I just got glazed looks, or doe-eyed responses from proponents of technological fixes (e.g. nuclear or carbon capture and storage) that: ‘all I care about is preventing runaway climate change’. As if I don’t.

But now, two mechanical engineers, Patrick Moriaty and Damon Honnery have published a paper that sums up part of my argument.

Moriaty and Honnery from Monash University, in Australia argue that technological fixes, such as carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, geoengineering, incremental improvements in energy efficiency are ‘too little, too late.’ They also argue that there may not be enough time to reverse renewable energy’s dwindling share of the global energy mix. One example the authors cite is that in the EU – who proudly declare their ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gases (GHG) – only 8% of new electricity capacity under construction would use renewable energy sources.

29 leading international scientists, identified nine processes in the biosphere for which the researchers considered it necessary to ‘define planetary boundaries’. Of these nine, the authors found that three boundaries had already been transgressed: climate change, interference with the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss (Rockström et al., 2009).

The authors argue that economies should take a needs approach to development which focusses on adequate provision of food, potable water, shelter, health and education services for all. And, the only way to achieve this on a finite plant, they conclude,  is to abandon the one-eyed obsession with global economic growth accompanied by dramatic cuts in ‘energy and material consumption’ in the Global North.

In their new book Rise and fall of the carbon civilisation Moriarty and Honnery put a figure on this – an 80% cut in energy and material consumption by the highest consumers in developed nations. Their paper echoes the conclusions Andrew Simms and I drew in Growth isn’t Possible: Why we need a new economic direction, and is also supported by Professor Tim Jackson’s report/book Prosperity without Growth.

Ensuring the majority world are lifted out of poverty but within the Earth’s ecological limits, is not possible in the current  economic paradigm. nef Fellow David Woodward, calculated that we’d need 15 planets of resources to get there. We only have one, and its health is dwindling.

But dealing with poverty must happen. As we face an uncertain future climate, the best way to reduce vulnerability to the direct and indirect impacts of climate change is to reduce socio-economic inequalities. Some of our thinking on this can be found in the report we published with the Working Group on Development on Climate Change. Here we asked a number of leading thinkers mainly from the Global South to contribute think-pieces explaining why another world is needed but that it is also possible.

Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning investment into climate change mitigation such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. Far from it. But decarbonisation of the economy will occur much more easily and rapidly  if overconsumers, stop overconsuming.

With a blink of an eye, challenging growth is gradually becoming mainstream. Although I note that scientists recognised the finiteness of the planet’s resources ever since the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Take for example the last 12 months. Leading science journal Nature published an editorial on why GDP is a poor measure of progress. In Europe, the De-Growth movement is, well,  growing, and fast. And, in two weeks time, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy will be hosting an international conference on why we need a steady state economy, and how we might get there. Speakers include Andrew Simms, Peter Victor, Tim Jackson and Dan O’Neil (European Director of the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy). There will also be a number of workshops, one of which I will be speaking at.

What this shows is that low growth, zero growth, de-growth, steady state economics or a dynamic equilibrium economy (whichever terminology you prefer), is moving from the margins to mainstream. When crises hit – such as the credit crunch in August 2008 – the appetite for new progressive thinking increases. And the events of the past two years shows, just how many people out there are willing to openly think outside the straight-jacket of orthodoxy and recognise that there are alternatives.

To see what the kind of cut Moriaty and Honnery describe really entails, I suggest checking out ‘Ration Me Up‘, the monthly ration book I worked on with the artist Claire Patey and funded by the Arts Council. This tool has been enormously successful in communicating to everyone from Ed Miliband (ex-Secretary for State for Energy and Climate Change, and potential new leader of the Labour Party) to the general public, the harsh reality of the challenges we face.

Clegg and Cameron at their first joint press conference

In a couple of weeks, the Centre for Alternative Technology will publish ‘Zero Carbon Britain II’ that shows how the UK can transform itself to a zero carbon economy over the next 30 years.

No one says it will be easy. There will need to be dramatic falls in consumption. But it can be done. What has been lacking up until now, is the political will.

Cue new coalition lib-con government.

This blog is  re-posted from Viki’s blog: Why the magic bullet misses

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