Is growing the economy in a green way the best way to save the planet? While environmentalists agree that spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere faster than Usain Bolt running the 100m dash at the Olympics is never a good thing, the debate about growing an economy often divides. Currently levels are at 392 parts per million (ppm), far above the 350 ppm level that is considered safe by analysts, yet lower than previous levels this year, according to co2now.org.
One one side of the debate, you have bright green environmentalists. These in this group I consider some economists, venture capitalists helping to support clean technology and renewable energy initiatives, the entrepreneurs who are innovating clean-tech products, advocates, and those who work in the industry. They believe the concerns of climate change, reinventing manufacturing, how we get our energy, and how we do business will solve our problems. Examples of people in this group include: Al Gore, economist Nicholas Stern, Elon Musk and author Ron Pernick. Often people within this group have a background in the information technology sector and have a firm grasp of not only how technology works, but how the dot-com boom laid the foundation for the rise in clean technology within the past 15 years.
On the other hand, there is the dark green group. They are not keen on economic growth. They believe that all of the concerning environmental problems of the day are all related to consumption. This group often believes in very simplistic solutions, including more urban density, riding your bike, eating local, not buying from Wal-Mart, etc. Some of the well-known dark green advocates include Bill McKibben, and Ozzie Zehner.
Now don’t get me wrong, dark green advocates are often some of the best when it comes to critiquing the problems with climate change. In fact, Bill McKibben is a guy I respect and admire for his work. His 2010 Earth, which I got a year later in paper back is a great piece of work on the problem. His most recent Rolling Stone article called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” lays out the stark, terrifying problems that lay ahead.
However, this is where McKibben is often off base with his solutions. His book Eaarth, advocates for more localization, limiting economic growth, and riding your bike, organic farming, etc.
That is just great Bill, just great. However, solutions by Bill McKibben and other dark green environmentalists will only alienate emerging market countries. These countries are finally starting to get themselves out of poverty. Look at the growth rates in China, Brazil , India, who thanks to globalization are starting to see the size of their middle classes increase. That is important. In fact, China leads the way in the global clean energy sector, according to a Znet article in June, 2012.
With 9 billion people set to be living on this nice round planet by 2050, it’s very highly unlikely people are going to turn off their air conditioners, video games, stop flying in order to save the planet.
Nicholas Stern, while endorsing the need to get Eaarth’s emission’s to 350ppm, criticized McKibben’s hyper-uber local approach two years ago:
“But while McKibben describes how climate change is affecting his home state of Vermont, he misses the opportunity to highlight the fact that those who are being hit hardest and soonest are poor and vulnerable people in developing countries. In this respect, his attack on economic growth, while perhaps having some appeal for those living comfortably in the rich countries, provides no realistic way forward for developing countries. For billions of people, economic development is the only way out of poverty and McKibben will alienate many with his dismissal of the concept of sustainable growth. There is no doubt that economic development must be understood as much more than rising consumption as conventionally measured. At the same time we must see that advances in education, health, environment, and other dimensions of development are, in many circumstances, much easier to realize if consumption and income are growing.”
Stern is bang on with the need for economic development to lift developing nations out of poverty. Renewable energy and clean technologies are the solution. Industries like wind and solar have been a part of China’s economic boom, along investments in electric vehicles. India is slowly putting money into wind and solar also. Brazil has one of the largest biofuel markets in the world and is also advancing their wind market, too.
So, growing new industries that limit carbon pollution, create new jobs and educational opportunities is our best hope, not just growing local and riding bikes all year long.
Is green growth the solution, the problem, or a combination of both hyper local and economic growth?