Climate change is a reality. At this time in human history, there are very few people who would deny it. The most accurate hypotheses about why this are related to human activities, meaning that humans are the ones who cause them, and the main reason is environmental degradation that includes the extermination of species, the generation of litter and the depletion of renewable resources such as water. But, above all, by emitting greenhouse gases. For the first time in a long time, the United States government is taking global warming seriously. There are already specific targets for reducing greenhouse gases. However, achieving them will have a cost: that economies do not grow. Worse, it may be necessary to have a slowdown in growth or a radical re-transformation of the economy so that it avoids unemployment and improves the environment at the same time.
It is an indisputable fact that the countries that generate the most waste are those with the highest economic growth. China is at the forefront of solid waste and greenhouse gas generation. Followed by the United States. Trying to reduce various pollutants and, at the same time, protect natural resources means greatly reducing production, or making a dramatic economic transformation, which may lead to a decrease in economic growth in some areas and an increase in others. In the medium and long term, the net effects could lead economies onto a new growth path, but in a context in which the production of many of the commodities that are currently consumed around the world ceases to exist.
Every productive activity generates waste. Therefore, stopping their emission means stopping production. This is the reason why many former US presidents have refused to ratify the Paris Accords and take measures to help improve environmental conditions. The current president appears to have a different environmental agenda than the previous one, but achieving the goals is not easy.
Absolute recycling or circular economy, although desirable, has not yet become a reality. In countries where the environment is most taken care of, such as Europe, one hundred percent recycling has not been achieved. It helps in having a high quality mass public transport system and it is in the collective imagination that owning your own vehicle is seen as irresponsible, which leads to traffic and pollution. In order to move towards a greener economy, practically the entire economy must be transformed and the polluting goods now being randomly produced around the world, such as pet plastic, must cease.
The energy transfer must also be accelerated. However, care must be taken with alternative energies, as they are intense in steel and rare earths, which means mining exploitation, which is also a pollutant. Additionally, at the end of its useful life, it generates industrial quantities of hard-to-recycle garbage, such as asbestos. In short, there are no technologies that are completely harmless to nature. Therefore, “decarbonizing” the economy could lead to other forms of environmental degradation that not only have a better environmental impact, but ultimately lead to economic decline.
Protecting nature will have economic costs. One of them, which few countries want to pay for, is having economies that do not grow. Economic growth is still seen as an indicator of development and as something feasible and desirable across the globe. But depleting both renewable and non-renewable resources can cause economies to get stuck in their tracks. In such a situation, zero growth, and even decline, will be dictated by nature itself. In our country we are already seeing it with depletion of water bodies and increasing water stress. Without water, there would be no viable companies or partnerships.
We as societies must make radical decisions that allow us to continue living in this world for centuries to come. This will only be possible if we take care of the environment. The problem is that we may act too late, so it is best to take immediate measures to allow the transition to a more environmentally friendly economy, even if that means reducing economic growth or generating unpolluted economic activities that absorb the unemployment resulting after the shutdown. Of those that pollute. The failure of society, companies and governments to take appropriate measures, such as ending the use of plastic once and permanently treating all wastewater, will cause nature to stop drought, and in this case we will not have a zero-growth economy, but one of low growth.
Professor of MA in Economics, FES-Aragón-UNAM, UAEMex and UDLAP Jenkins Graduate School.