Finding new ways to continue with the same model of growth and consumption will put enormous pressure on finite resources

Swati Agarwal & Mihir Mathur, The Wire

Pollution generating cars in Delhi that contribute to global warming. (Photo: Deepak)

With two major conferences this year on the deeply integrated issues of climate change (to be held in Paris) and sustainable development (that took place in UNGA, New York) under the United Nations Framework, discussions are taking place globally on the transformation of economies and the role of technology in achieving these goals. The international community on climate change is strongly pushing the agenda of deep de-carbonization for the global economy in order to meet the challenge of restricting temperature increase to 2 degree Celsius.

The assumption seems to be that this transition will be achieved primarily through the transition of economies towards renewable energy, energy efficiency and through afforestation. Technology and innovation are being touted as the two powerful drivers that will help achieve low carbon growth in the context of climate change. This is the vaunted ‘sustainable development’ that has filled the headlines, but recent research by the authors show that, this scenario is based on assumptions that do not bear scrutiny.

To put it bluntly, those who champion the process of economic growth – essentially growth in consumption and production – often neglect that fact that this growth is heavily dependent on the exploitation of finite natural resources, many of which are in decline. In other words, even assuming the world takes to the climate change-related agenda of low carbon growth, countries would still continue to heavily rely on both renewable and non-renewable resources such as mineral, metals, fossil fuels, land, forest and water.

Is renewable energy really renewable?

Energy is a good example to understand how growth is tied to finite resources, when it is considered ‘renewable.’ In 2014, for the first time in four decades, the global economy and energy demand grew without a corresponding increase in global carbon emissions. The recently released Renewables 2015 Global Status Report attributes this to the “increased penetration of renewable energy and to improvements in energy efficiency.” While that is true, the fact remains that adopting renewable energy requires material requirement to multiply.

For instance, the global copper consumption is poised to increase not just because electricity demand is growing but also because new energy technologies typically require more of this metal than the traditional sources like fossil fuel generated power plants. Each MW of renewable energy on average requires 6 to 8 tons of copper while traditional energy sources require only one-sixth of it. Supposing all the economies of the world were to successfully deeply decarbonize their energy systems, what will the future demand and availability of copper look like? There is an imperative need to answer this question with an approximate figure and time limit in the context of growth.

If we were to extrapolate this to all other natural resources both renewable and non-renewable such as mineral, energy, land, forest and water, the question arises as whether sustainable development is feasible at all. This is not a futuristic scenario either since there’s a growing body of research which suggests that the recent global economic crises and the still ongoing debt crises in many regions are indications of a systemic crisis of resource depletion.

Growth cannot be ‘decoupled’ from resources

As the above example shows, while the thrust towards low carbon growth can help economies to ‘decouple’ economic growth from emissions, they still will not be able to decouple growth from resource consumption. In other words, so long as the balance between economic growth and natural resource consumption is not met, even if we are able to meet with the global agenda of climate change, sustainable development in the longer terms will still be compromised. Even if technology is made available, leading to quantum leaps in energy efficiency and clean energy through new discoveries, such advancements might only be able to delay the impacts of this imbalance to a future time, but may not be able to defer it infinitely.

Vast variation in consumption patterns is seen among the countries of the world. It is estimated that citizens of developed countries consume an average of 16 tons per capita per year of resources (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some countries). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes 4 tons per capita per year. Amidst its domestic challenges of alleviating poverty and meeting its energy access needs for its population where 30% are yet to receive electricity, India has been strongly urging developed nations about the need for changes in lifestyles to cut unnecessary increases in per capita resource consumption to meet climate change as well as sustainable development goals; the economies of the world are yet to respond.

Therefore, it is imperative that a global policy regime is devised for climate change mitigation that aims at de-growth of the wealthiest economies and a reduction in the growth of the rest. Unless the pace of consumption is cut down to a sustainable level, the prospects for corralling consumption for everyone cannot be met without degrading the environment beyond its sustainable threshold levels. Lifestyle changes are therefore essentially the radical solution of achieving sustainable development in the long term while also meeting with the global climate change agenda because technology advancements alone can at best delay the potential unforeseen impacts of depleting resources.

As the economist Kenneth Boulding stated years ago: “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”. It is perhaps time to face up to the challenge of implementing a universally accepted agenda of common but differentiated responsibility among countries, this time to deeply cut their consumption. While this subject is discussed within the broader rubric of sustainable development goals, the Paris agreement on climate change within its common but differentiated responsibility agenda must also seek cooperation in this direction. Until pledges to reduce consumption are not sought particularly from the wealthiest economies of the world, we will inevitably be heading towards crisis situation in the future.

Swati Agarwal is climate policy researcher at The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) and Mihir Mathur is associate fellow at TERI.