The pandemic proved that ‘degrowth’ doesn’t help the planet

Reprinted from Principia Scientifica


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There’s nothing like a climate summit to bring out all the Marxists, mugwumps, and misanthropes.

They want us to pursue “degrowth.” They tell anyone who will listen that “capitalism is killing the planet.” They call for “limitarianism,” their latest buzzword.

We should, in other words, limit everything: our travel, our diet, our recreation, our procreation.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of level-headed people in Glasgow doing useful and important work. But the most hardcore eco-activists always seem less motivated by the details of climate policy than by a general dislike of the human race.

Some of them openly talk of our species as a virus that has contaminated Mother Earth and commit themselves to celibacy. Most want human beings to survive, but to be colder, sparser, and poorer. Theirs is a world in which, to quote an old missionary hymn, “every prospect pleases and only man is vile.”

Nothing new there, you might think. Except that, this time, we have had a taste of their medicine.

Last year saw the limitarian ideal realized: falling GDP, grounded airplanes, less trade, a downturn in birthrates.

Sure enough, the eco-doomsters reveled in it.

Indeed, some of a certain political leaning loved the lockdowns so much that they want to revive them.

Mariana Mazzucato of University College London, the current pinup for opponents of the market economy, has speculated about future “climate lockdowns” so as to “tackle a climate emergency.”

Let’s leave aside the obvious objections to lockdowns — the ruinous damage to lives and livelihoods, the business closures, the debts, the harm to mental health. Let’s instead ask whether they work as an environmental measure.

Did making everyone poorer and less free at least slow global warming?

Not really. Shutting down industrial production did reduce air pollution, but it also meant that there were fewer tiny particles produced by the burning of fuels. These aerosols actually have a cooling effect because they reflect sunlight away from the Earth .

As professor Piers Forster of the Priestley International Center for Climate at the University of Leeds explained, “The impact on global temperatures was short-lived and very small (an increase of just 0.03C), but it was still bigger than anything caused by lockdown-related changes in ozone, CO2, or aviation.”

In other words, the lockdowns significantly reduced carbon dioxide emissions, but they fractionally increased global temperatures. Other surveys show that the lockdowns did lead to a net reduction in global warming, but only at a negligible 0.01 degrees Celsius.

To be clear, then, locking people up and causing a worse recession than we saw in either world war or the Great Depression had almost no impact on planetary temperatures.

But it gets worse. As incomes collapsed, some of the poorest people in the world were driven to hunt protected species.

Kenya saw a massive increase in the slaughter of giraffes for meat .

Botswana had to evacuate dozens of black rhinos from the Okavango Delta after six were found dead.

Colombia reported a spike in the poaching of pumas and jaguars , India of tigers and elephants .

The World Economic Forum admitted that the surge in bush meat “is directly linked to COVID-19-related lockdowns .”

What degrowthers never seem to grasp is that you need a measure of wealth before you can afford conservationism. There has, for example, been considerable net reforestation over the past century, but it has happened in rich countries, not in places where people still depend on slash-and-burn agriculture and firewood for cooking.

Indeed, the environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel has gone so far as to put a figure on when the crossover occurs. When per capita GDP reaches $6,200 (in 2021 dollars), a country moves from net deforestation to net reforestation.

People in rich countries can afford to shoot animals with cameras rather than rifles. They can afford to set aside swathes of countryside. They can afford to invest in green technologies.

That, in short, is why we need to ensure that the climate targets we adopt are not an excessive drag on growth. We will deal with any change in temperature in the same way that we deal with every challenge — through innovation.

We know what the Extinction Rebellion red/green world looks like. We lived through it in 2020.

We were imprisoned, impoverished, immiserated.

The poorest people on the planet were pushed into hunger. And for what? A drop in carbon emissions whose impact on the climate was negligible, if it existed at all, and with that, the loss of biodiversity that invariably follows when incomes plummet.

Enough. We need to snap out of the environmentalists’ superstitious, “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” hair-shirtery. We should aim to get richer and greener at the same time. That’s the magic of the market.

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Header image: Centre for International Environmental Law

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