Q&A: Rage and the Economics of the Environment

  • Stephen Leahy interviews British economist TIM JACKSON* - Tierramérica (toronto, canada)
  • Thursday, January 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

The Copenhagen Accord, the outcome of the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December, not only revealed global environmental governance as a fiction, but also demonstrated a continuing blind adherence to the mantra of economic growth, says Jackson

Professor of sustainable development and director of the Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment at Surrey University in Britain, Jackson also serves as British government advisor and economics commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission.

In addition, Jackson is a professional playwright with numerous radio-writing credits for the BBC, based in London.

Tierramérica's Stephen Leahy spoke with Jackson by phone about his new, controversial book 'Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet', the Copenhagen Accord and prospects for a real climate treaty, continuing a conversation they began last month in Copenhagen.

Q: Your book 'Prosperity without Growth' argues that economic growth in developed countries is making people less happy and destroying the Earth itself. A: It's clear the continued pursuit of growth endangers the ecosystems on which we depend for long-term survival.

There is also ample evidence that increasing material wealth in developed countries is not making people any happier, but just the opposite in some countries. Beyond a certain level of income, there is no correlation of greater income with greater happiness.

Q: If the era of economic growth is over, what will take its place? A: Wealth and prosperity need to be redefined along the lines of (1998 Nobel laureate in economics) Amartya Sen’s 'capability for flourishing.' Flourishing is defined as having enough to eat, being part of a community, worthwhile employment, decent housing, access to education and medical services.

This is a major shift from an economy for increasing material wealth to a new concept of 'ecological enterprise,' with resource-light, community-based activities that provide the capabilities for people to thrive within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Some of that is about material things: food, clothing, shelter. But it's also about our ability to live well, to participate in society in less materialistic, more meaningful ways.

Q: What is happening in the developing countries? A: The developed countries need to make this shift to create space for developing countries to grow their economies. This growth needs to be sustainable and remain within ecological limits.

The current inequity between rich and poor nations is the prime reason the developed world needs to make this shift.

Q: Why are you so angry that the Copenhagen climate talks ended in a 10-page Copenhagen Accord instead of a binding international treaty? A: It's a document full of hot air and empty promises cooked up by the world’s two 'great' superpowers. Is that really the best we have to show for 17 years of climate negotiations? It’s gunboat climate policy.

The climate deal wasn’t the only thing that fell apart in Copenhagen. Global environmental governance got shafted.

Q: Which essential topics were not part of the COP15 climate negotiations? A: The growth debate barely figured at all in the official business. Business as usual was the default assumption throughout. The growth debate and fair shares to ecological space both have to be on the table, otherwise the negotiations aren't going anywhere.

Q: What do you think of current efforts to reduce carbon emissions using mechanisms like cap and trade? A: It is not possible to achieve a low-carbon economy without a major shift in the economy itself. Small adjustments won't do it. Corporations are looking at climate as the new business opportunity. Market mechanisms are now the predominant tools that look like change and are good for corporations, but bad for the public and the commons.

Consider the much-promoted idea that economic growth can continue so long as its carbon emissions (and other environmental impacts) are greatly reduced.

In a world of nine billion people all aspiring to Western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it is today. That's simply not possible.

Q: What will happen going from Copenhagen to COP16 next December in Mexico City, the site of the next round of climate negotiations? A: I think there has to be some sense of international pressure and momentum in relation to key policy issues like regulation of financial markets, systems of national accounts, and the obvious pressure to create a viable forum for climate governance, as well as the measurement of social progress (like France's report from the Commission on Economic Performance and Social Progress, entrusted in 2009 to Sen and fellow Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz).

Somehow the United States and China need to be brought into the bigger debates about growth and fairness.

Interestingly, there are some changes in tone in some unexpected places, for instance, a bit more humility and openness at the Davos World Economic Forum than in previous years. Signs of hope? Possibly.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?