Down to earth modelling

An innovative model makes one thing clear: we can either embark on a managed and fair transition to a post-growth economy or face a tumultuous future of ecological and economic collapse, argues Nick Meynen.

The job of system modellers boils down to building and improving a ‘magic machine’ that can, in a way, see into the future. This magic toy for policymakers is stuffed with complex algorithms on the inside, all with the aim of showing, for example, policymakers as confidently as possible what will happen if they try policy measure A, B or C.

One of the newest of these toys was developed by the EU-funded MEDEAS project, which models the renewable energy transition in Europe. When listening to the model’s developers, one couldn’t resist feeling sorry for the policymakers who will use this toy to test the outcomes of their plans. The truths it generates about the climate and our global economy are way more inconvenient than those once produced by a certain Al Gore. The bottom-line message is: greening capitalism is just not going to cut it.

Let’s say, for example, that you are working on climate change in the new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen. Your political boss has made it crystal clear from the start that, by 2050, the EU should become the first carbon neutral region in the world.

Fantastic! Finally, the political ambition is there to take the climate emergency as seriously as it needs to be taken. Now, imagine that your job is to find out how to get to this climate neutral EU in 2050. Aside from adding “carbon sinks” – more popularly known as trees – you will also have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions big time.

Now, assume that the goal is a reduction of 50% or 60% by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, as advised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that global group of eminent scientists that looked hard at all the best climate science available. Imagine you put this as a desired outcome in the MEDEAS magic machine and ask: can we green grow our way there?

Inconvenient futures

That is where you will have your first big and inconvenient “Computer says no” moment. In theory, you can enter unrealistic assumptions that will show that you can green grow your way to climate neutrality but realistically, it is just not feasible anymore. As it turns out, the scientists who produced the MEDEAS energy-resources-economy model are convinced that all paths leading to a climate neutral EU by 2050 are pathways in which our economy can evolve towards a steady state, albeit at a smaller scale than today.

Either the European economy will be smaller and steadier than it is now in 2050 or the climate emergency will spiral totally out of control. The latter means climate change that leads to far more than 2°C of warming and possibly starvation and mass migration on scales that may make previous crises in human history look like a walk in the park.

Business as unusual

To put this in the words of Professor Jordi Solé, the project leader of MEDEAS: “Neither business as usual nor green growth can achieve the climate neutrality aims of the European Commission, only an economy with a much lower GDP than now and no growth can.”

This is a further scientific confirmation of what seven academics wrote in a report published by the EEB earlier this year: “Decoupling Debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability”. They found that no permanent absolute decoupling between economic growth and environmental harm has ever taken place on the global scale, and it is extremely unlikely to ever happen.

In other words, we cannot have our cake and eat it. However, the good news is that the cake can be shared far more equally and a better future for the majority is, in fact, possible within a post-growth economy. This requires systemic change at the political and economic levels. This is challenging but it is still easier than trying to break the laws of thermodynamics.

No easy solutions

Now, what does it mean to plan for a smaller economy? There are no easy ways out of this mess. Take trade as an example. When asked about the compatibility of the emerging policy to become climate neutral and the existing policy to increase global trade, the answer from most of the scientists involved in MEDEAS was that we will have to reduce the need for unnecessary trade. This is a sharp contradiction to decades of efforts in the EU to lower trade barriers and increase the volumes of trade moving around the globe.

What the science is effectively telling us is this: do not make deals such as the EU-Mercosur trade deal or the one being negotiated with America. Aside from the fact that we are negotiating with countries who are saying they will not respect the Paris Agreement, there is a much deeper issue with these trade deals that stays the same even if the political leadership in the US or Brazil changes.

These trade deals all aim to increase the volumes of goods crossing our oceans. Although The Economist once argued in favour of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) because it would allow people in France to finally eat oysters from San Francisco, scientists are saying that there is too much unnecessary trade already and we need to reduce the metabolism of the global economy.

Comparative disadvantage

The main reason why such messages come across as inconvenient is that we have been told over-and-over again that our economy and trade need to grow. But the science is telling us that this mantra has had merits in the past but, at least for the EU, the gains no longer outweigh the losses. Some people will go as far as hating the scientists or messengers like me for saying this because it is in direct contradiction with their worldview. .

But climate scientists are not here to win a popularity contest, they are here to help policymakers who draft policies. They make these magic machines that can help illuminate what the consequences of our actions and inactions will be. Sure enough, the modellers need to work with a number of uncertainties, but system models have proven to be more reliable than some wish to believe. Recently, it was shown how climate models from the 1970s predicted very precisely what would happen with the climate if we would do what we ended up doing: continuing with growth as usual. The models were meant as a warning, not as a manual.

Nevertheless, more fine-tuning is needed. The EU-funded modelling project LOCOMOTION, in which the EEB is involved, recently kicked off, with the aim of expanding and building on MEDEAS.

Managed transition

But what is already clear is that the models we now have are basically saying that to make the EU a carbon neutral region, you have to plan for a post-growth economy.

At the EEB, we have been looking hard at how to do this. We argue that this crisis is an opportunity to turn this momentous challenge into something positive. Our policy proposals for a positive pathway to a post-growth future are summed up in a short paper called ‘Beyond Sustainable Growth’ – which we created based on the well-received report Decoupling Debunked.

We believe that a managed socially just transition leading to more wellbeing, security and stability for more people is far better compared with continuing haphazardly – because a post-growth future is coming, either as a planned transition or through the collapse of the current economic system.

The ultimate reality check for the Green Deal that the new European Commission is proposing now is this: will it continue on the failing path of unrelenting economic growth?