Climate experts from Global South cool on degrowth: survey

European scientists are most supportive of reducing economic activity to address climate change. Respondents from emerging economies differ starkly.

Wind farm Texas USA
A wind farm in Texas, United States. Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Matthew T Rader.

Climate policy researchers from industrialised countries show greater support for scaling back economic growth to rein in worsening environmental harms, a survey shows.

Scientists from the European Union (EU) are most in favour of either broadening the definition of national development beyond financial metrics, or an outright reduction in consumption and economic activity.

Meanwhile, many of their peers from the BRICS group – comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – feel that continued economic growth can and should happen without hurting the environment, according to research published last week in science journal Nature Sustainability.

The study shows the importance of “a more inclusive and diverse dialogue on sustainable development that goes beyond the green growth paradigm”, wrote the report authors, who are based in Spain and Russia.

The authors emailed a questionnaire to over 15,000 climate policy researchers worldwide and received 789 replies. The respondents were asked how much they agreed with three statements:

  • That “continued economic growth is essential for improving people’s life satisfaction”,
  • “Economic growth is necessary to finance environmental protection”, and
  • “In view of limited natural resources, rich countries may have to give up their economic growth to assure that all poor people in the world can reach a fair standard of living”.

The responses were grouped into three clusters, representing support for “green growth”, “agrowth” – that governments should be neutral about economic growth, as well as “degrowth” – where rich nations reduce their economic activity to meet sustainability goals.

green growth v degrowth

Researchers polled 789 researchers about their views on growth and sustainability. Data: Lewis C. King, Ivan Savin, Stefan Drews.

Almost 45 per cent of respondents supported agrowth, the study found. The rest were roughly split between preferring green growth and degrowth.

EU respondents were particularly sceptical of green growth, with less than 14 per cent favouring the concept. Half of all researchers polled from the bloc preferred agrowth, and another 36 per cent supported degrowth.

North American researchers were warmer to green growth, with 26 per cent support for the concept.

Meanwhile, only 6.3 per cent of experts from Brics nations supported degrowth. Almost 58 per cent preferred green growth. The trend is similar in a group of nations classified “Non-OECD other” [OECD is a coalition of major economies], which included countries such as Argentina, Indonesia, Nigeria and Singapore.

Responses also differed by discipline. Social scientists had the strongest preferences for agrowth and degrowth; economists and engineers favoured green growth the most.

The results imply growing belief among higher-income groups that social and environmental costs will exceed the benefits of pursuing economic growth, the study noted. This notion could grow stronger once society’s basic needs are met, it said.

The respondents’ preferences could trickle into policymaking – the report noted that scientists help craft climate policies, enjoy higher public trust, and can shape public opinion.

Climate researchers who support green growth favour policies that finance innovation, while degrowth proponents prefer direct environmental regulations such as standards, quotas and bans, the study also found.

Responding to the study, Professor Lawrence Loh from the National University of Singapore said developing countries still need to latch on to economic growth while adhering to sustainability.

“It is unclear if agrowth or degrowth can allow them to progress materially, versus green growth,” said Loh, who is director of the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the varsity’s business school.

“We have to be cautious that the disparity [shown in the study] will not lead to a divide, especially over the notion of green growth,” he added.

Loh said it is unlikely that economic growth can be decoupled from carbon emissions in the foreseeable future, though a “genuine quest for net-zero [emissions]” can help to mitigate the environmental impacts.

Globally, degrowth remains an unconventional concept, though policymakers are warming to the idea of measuring development using a broader range of social and environmental metrics. Such ideas were discussed in an EU government conference titled “Beyond Growth” in May that was attended by top European officials.

But Europe could also be reeling from moving fast on climate policies, which has alienated voters and businesses in what UK news agency Reuters termed a “greenlash” phenomenon.

Green growth appears high on the agenda of the upcoming COP28 climate conference. Last month, conference president-designate Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber said he envisions a global move towards “a new low-carbon, high-growth, sustainable economic model” that is “both transformational and just”.

There needs to be “private sector and technology-led growth” consistent with the Paris Agreement, a 2015 global treaty to limit climate change to under 2 degrees Celsius, said Al Jaber, who is both the United Arab Emirates’ special envoy for climate change, and chief of the country’s state-owned oil firm.

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