Saturday, April 24, 2021

"Green economic growth is an article of ‘faith’ devoid of scientific evidence"

The author of this essay, Nafeez Ahmed, has, over the years written some things that are borderline brilliant and some things that are totally whack. I think the piece below is closer to the former than the latter, especially in light of his generally left-of-center political views. It takes some courage to be the straight-shooter when the powers-that-be are obsfucating.

The key point is that in the current discussion of changing humanity's sources of energy there is a great glossing-over of just how difficult the transition will be; You end up with a lot of pressure groups, poseurs and posturing politicians who: state the problem - do a lot of hand-waving - paint the picture of  the 'broad sunlit uplands' at the end of the journey. The people who do this tend not to be very accomplished in mathematics, physics or engineering. Hence the handwaving in the middle.

For years when folks wanted to engage me in talk of energy and energy policy I would ask them if they were familiar with David MacKay and had they read his book "Sustainable Energy – without the hot air"

If they had not, I would recommend they read the book and continue our conversation at a later date, MacKay could teach them more in a couple hours than they could glean from me in a couple weeks. 

He was more formally known as Sir David John Cameron MacKay Kt, FRS, FInstP, FICE, Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and was Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. Before he became the first Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge he hung his hat at the University's Cavendish Laboratory where 29 people who went on to win Nobel Prizes, mainly in physics but also the odd chemist, had also hung out over the years.

The gist of his book is that the coming transition will not be easy.
The Economist called it a "tour de force", the journal Science "... a cold blast of reality ... a must-read analysis..."

You should read it. And there is really no reason not to. Concurrent with it being published, Dr. MacKay put it online on a dedicated website: "".

And if the reader is interested we put some of our earlier links in 2016's "Energy and Artificial Intelligence Expert Professor Sir David J.C. MacKay Has Died, Age 48".

Now on to the headline story.

Via Medium, July 6, 2020:

Crack team that advised UN Global Sustainable Development Report settle a longstanding debate with hard empirical data

For years, financial institutions and governments have been focused on the idea of ‘decoupling’ GDP growth from resource use. This has been driven by the recognition that to stay within the ‘safe limit’ of 2 degrees Celsius, we have to dramatically reduce our material consumption.

The goal is to keep our economies growing to sustain prosperity while reducing our actual resource use and material footprint. The bottom line is that without reducing our overall use of planetary resources, we are bound to cross the line into a dangerous climate. But is doing so consistent with the continued increase in economic growth?

The conventional belief has been most recently articulated in a recent book, More From Less, by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist the MIT Sloan School of Management. Financial and other data, McAfee argued, shows we can actually easily reduce our material footprint while continuing to grow our economies in a win-win scenario.

But new scientific analysis by a group of systems scientists and economists proves that this contention is completely groundless. Far from being based on hard evidence, this sort of claim is instead derived from egregious selective readings of statistical data.

Decades of research on material flows confirm that there are “no realistic scenarios” for such decoupling going forward.

Combing through 179 of the best studies of this issue from 1990 to 2019 further reveals “no evidence” that any meaningful decoupling has ever taken place.

“The goal of decoupling rests partly on faith”, conclude the team from the BIOS Research Institute in Finland, an independent multidisciplinary scientific organisation studying the effects of environmental and resource factors on economy, politics, and culture. The BIOS team have previously advised the UN Global Sustainable Development Report on the risks of emerging biophysical limits to endless economic growth.

This is how UN scientists are preparing for the end of capitalism
Capitalism as we know it is over. So suggests a new report commissioned by a group of scientists appointed by the UN…

Their new analysis comes in the form of two peer-reviewed research papers published in June.
Narrowing the window

The first, published in Environmental Politics, points out that currently the environmental impacts and resource use of many national economies is unsustainable. The only way the economy can grow or even remain at the present level is to ‘decouple’ it from these environmental impacts, thus staying within the planetary boundaries of resource use.

The problem is that many of the accounting measures used to conclude that decoupling is happening tend to systematically obscure or exclude critical data.

“The existence of decoupling in a bounded geographical area or economic sector does not, as such, mean that decoupling is happening in a wider context,” argue the BIOS team.

“Well-known and widely studied phenomena such as Jevons’ paradox, rebound, and outsourcing show that sectoral and local decoupling can co-exist with and even depend on increased environmental impact and increased resource use outside the analysed geographical or sectoral unit.”

Much of the data marshalled by McAfee and others, for instance, represents cherry-picking from a narrow window that focuses on a particular region or sector without acknowledging the wider impacts outside that region or sector.

As a result, much deeper environmental impacts of resource use can often be excluded from the analysis simply by narrowing down that data-focus.

In other words, just because we are dramatically improving efficiencies in technology production, does not mean we are actually reducing our real-world material footprint. In fact, often greater efficiencies can even translate into heightened environmental impacts because they enable greater levels of consumption at lower cost.

Within a wider capitalist system incentivising maximisation of profits, this can actually accelerate resource consumption overall. But by narrowing their ‘accounting’ lens, authors like McAfee can make a case that resource consumption is declining, by basically ignoring the relevant data and focusing only on the efficiency data that suits the narrative....