Humanity’s demands on the planet are unsustainable

Our resource consumption is simply unsustainable and yet we continue with “development” project after “development” project. We are getting more evidence but so far we have not had the wake up call for us to take meaningful action. As Andrew Simms writes in The Guardian, we need a policy that focuses on renewable energy, green jobs and zero-emission housing. While he is writing to a British audience, this is an important message for all.


We are in ecological overshoot. Industrial strategy can provide a way out

On 8 August 2016, the world slipped into “ecological overshoot” – having consumed more resources and produced more waste than nature can replace and absorb in the year. We hit this landmark earlier and earlier every year, and a big part of that – 60% – involves the carbon emissions driving global warming. Indeed, any idea of the UK being a world leader on climate action is sharply dispelled by the government’s own latest figures, quietly released a few days ago. They revealed that when you include emissions from all the things we consume, our carbon footprint is going up, not down, as other, more commonly quoted official figures suggest.

Climate records are being broken on a monthly basis as temperatures, sea levels and carbon concentrations all hit levels never experienced by modern, human societies. It’s no longer a problem we can delay facing until physical impacts become unavoidable – the government’s own advisers warn of a climate domino effect on key infrastructure.

On cue, we have a new administration under Theresa May that has publicly thrown away the decades-old laissez-faire economic playbook, enthusiastically embracing market intervention with an explicit industrial strategy. Almost unimaginably for the Conservative party of recent years, there’s even a new department enshrining that aim in its name, alongside business and energy.

The necessity for the UK to make a rapid environmental transition now coincides with the means; justification – given the need for an economic stimulus; and the potential political impetus to achieve it. Yet, the dots are still not being connected. Industrial strategy suggests having a long-term vision to avoid risk and grasp opportunity. It means creating jobs, rebalancing the economy away from its over-dependence on finance, and taking practical steps to begin today making the shift to zero carbon implied by the ambition of the Paris climate accord. According to the climate scientist professor Kevin Anderson, it requires immediate, significant reductions in energy demand, “complemented with a Marshall-style transition to zero-carbon energy supply”.

So far however, the only detail on the UK’s industrial strategy is that it will be “proper”, and focus mantra-like on productivity (fewer people producing more things), and growth (a generalised increase in consumption). Not only will such a simplistic approach not solve the real world problems we face, it could make them worse. If May’s government heads for its comfort zone and what has previously passed for industrial policy, instead of focusing on rapidly emerging sectors such as renewable energy, where costs are falling and the ratio of jobs per pound invested is high, it is likely that it will veer towards energy-intensive, export sectors such as aviation and the motor industry, where there is a history of government subsidy and support.

That would be a mistake. Transport emissions in Europe have been rising. Expansion in these areas is incompatible with preventing catastrophic climate change and, indeed, public health and a convivial environment. And, there are other, bigger, better opportunities.

Renewable energy is doing well. More renewable energy capacity is added to global power supplies annually now than from all fossil fuels combined. But inconsistent policy has destabilised the UK industry, putting firms out of business. Key figures in renewables worry that lack of investment and proper industrial strategy means they will struggle to step in where fossil fuels are failing or necessarily being designed out. Solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett points out that global investment in renewables for the first half of 2016 has fallen by about one quarter compared to the previous year.

Another area that combines opportunity and need is housing. The task of building new, low-cost, zero-emission homes and renovating the UK’s vast, drafty housing stock, was at the centre of calls for a genuine green “new deal” in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. Multiple benefits would include the creation of countless green-collar jobs, reduced energy poverty, better health, lower emissions, and a generation reskilled.

Now fears about the economy are growing. In cutting interest rates recently, Mark Carney, the governor of Bank of England, said he will take “whatever action is needed”. But an industrial strategy needs more than the blunt tool of interest rates or the general injection of money into the banking system via quantitative easing.

It means getting cheap money, on good, patient terms, to the sectors that represent a sustainable industrial future, and it also means making life more expensive for those sectors that don’t fit the vision. In the face of the threats to our collective environment and economy, we need, in effect, an ecological interest rate and investment strategy that can differentiate between the two, to underpin the nation’s new industrial policy.

The UK’s political debate and economic future is being shaped by the result of an urge for independence, yet we cannot escape the reality of our environmental and resource interdependence. The demand we place on natural resources is nearly four times what the UK’s own ecosystems can supply.

Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network worries that the failure to accept living within planetary boundaries results from politicians taking a “lose last” approach. “They won’t accept and act on the risk,” he says, “without being able to see a path.”

If nothing else, an industrial strategy is about having a path to navigate risk. The UK now has a chance to use one to dodge a host of dangers and come out the better. Will it use it?

2 thoughts on “Humanity’s demands on the planet are unsustainable

  1. As ever, this auithor writes enormous sense. What worries me is that Andrew Simms has been making enormous strategic sense for the past twenty years. And just how limited the response has been to date. Here’s hoping…

    1. You are right that he makes enormous sense. I love reading his articles. The evidence is getting more obvious every day that we will have to sit up and take notice of what he says. Here’s hoping for sure . . .

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