Tag Archives: degrowth

Difficult conversations: climate and economic growth in the Global South

I am fascinated by the current resurgence of political economy, so much so that I started identifying as a post-growth economist. By wearing this badge, I (and others) mean to say that growth can not be a goal of economic policy. Neither good nor bad in itself, growth should be assessed relatively to how it affects humans and the planet we inhabit. Once you factor in the theoretical and empirical link between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases, it becomes clear to me that generalized growth is incompatible with preserving the conditions humanity enjoyed during the holocene, so really bad. In the Global North. In the Global South, it’s an entirely different story.

This is where Ken Opalo comes in. Opalo is a political scientist based in the United States of America. Originally from Nigeria, his academic interests center on the African continent; he runs a very informative blog on African economies and societies. In a recent post, he takes on degrowth and post-growth types like myself. He starts by pointing out that energy poverty is a bad thing, as we all agree. As climate change progresses, it gets even worse, because (energy-) poor people have no shield to defend them against its effects. This means that not only they are worse affected in the static sense of suffering more immediate damage, but also that this damage slows, blocks, or reverses developmental dynamics. His example; schools in South Sudan were recently ordered by the government to close because extreme heat was making classroom learning impossible. The time not spent in education makes it harder for the South Sudanese workforce to achieve badly needed productivity gains. Another example: energy poor people burn firewood to cook, and that is very bad, both for deforestation and for their own health. Sick people have low productivity, so again, energy poverty begets more poverty.

Opalo is adamant: low-income countries simply must grow. Without growth, there can be no transition.

These countries need (to) grow as fast as possible so they can have cash for infrastructure that can withstand flooding and extreme temperatures; agricultural technologies and infrastructure that are resilient to climate change; and yes, investments in green technologies for the future.

He then goes on to point out that the current policy discourse on climate is used to pressurize the governments of low-income African nations into policies that perpetuate energy poverty. Climate agendas in the region revolve around carbon sinks and conserving biodiversity, with no mention of the need to eliminate energy poverty. Why would they accept something like this? Because of carbon credits. High-income countries, according to Opalo, would like to use low-income ones as “reserves”, places where they can buy the carbon credits to continue running their (our) industries and trasport.

This is very uncomfortable. From where Opalo stands, climate policy is reminescent of the Washington Consensus of the 1990s: policy prescriptions that will always hurt the poorest the most, cloaked in intellectual respectability. Degrowth economics has replaced the Chicago School; and climate activists have joined the bankers in standing behind these institutions. But the violence is the same.

The reality is more nuanced. Degrowth academics have described a direction of travel where high-income countries degrow aggressively to preserve the planet, whereas low-income ones grow to satisfy human needs. But degrowth academics do not make policy, and Opalo has a solid point when he fears that their ideas, once they reach deployment, will have been transformed to make them politically viable. That generally means that they do not attack frontally powerful interests. The Global North bribing via carbon markets the Global South to keep it energy-poor is, unfortunately, a plausible outcome.

But Opalo’s contribution has also a major problem, which is this claim:

[…] development gives rise to less energy-intensive sectors, efficient use of energy, and the ability to invest in cleaner energy (including renewables).

This is not factually wrong, but we now know it is not enough. Developed economies have reduced their domestic emissions by the simple expedient of exporting them, together with large swaths of the supply chains behind our hi-tech consumption. Emissions associated to one dollar of domestic consumption has, in general, not declined. Additionally, and critically, absolute emissions have continued to increase, more or less linearly with GDP. This point was made very forcefully by Timothée Parrique at the Beyond Growth conference in 2023 (I strongly recommed watching the 10-minutes video of his intervention). In a nutshell, Parrique says that green growth must satsfy five requirements:

  1. Absolute decoupling between environmental pressures and economic output.
  2. That needs to work across all environmental pressure: not only carbon, but materials extraction, biodiversity loss, air pollution and so on.
  3. And needs to be done wherever these emissions occur, not just at home but wherever economic activities related to growth at home occur.
  4. And needs to be done at a pace which is sufficiently fast to avoid ecological collapse.
  5. And needs to be maintained over time.

Parrique’s conclusion:

This type of green growth has not been achieved anywhere on Earth, and I have not seem convincing evidence showing that it could.

For a more academic reading, try this paper by Jefim Vogel and Jason Hickel.

So, Opalo points to a real problem: climate “degrowthist” agendas could very well turn out extremely unjust for people in the Global South, despite the best intention of degrowth economists. But green growth is not a credible solution to that problem. The debate on the role of economic growth in environmental collapse points to a difficult conversation ahead about what we prioritize provisioning (for example lifting the Global South out of energy poverty) and what we do not prioritize or actively discourage (for example hyperconsumption of the global élites, private jets etc.). It’s an uncomfortable and divisive conversation, and things could get ugly. But have it we must. Pretending we can be saved by what climate activist Greta Thunberg calls “the fairy tales endless economic (green) growth” will not help anyone.