What’s your “fair share” of carbon emissions? You’re probably blowing way past it.

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How the right to pursue happiness through unlimited consumption harms the planet, and our kids. By


All I Want for Christmas
High school students wearing masks protest against high levels of air pollution outside the government building in Skopje, North Macedonia December 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

So green growth’s get-out-of-jail-guilt-free story doesn’t yet fit the aggregate facts. For lower temperature stabilizations, there isn’t time for green growth to bear fruit. Rich nations need about 9 percent in emissions cuts every year starting in 2021, for the next decade.

Again, “green growth” is gambling with the life prospects of our kids (and of all the other life that evolved to fit pre-crisis conditions). Bet badly and your kids get worse and likely shorter lives, facing climate-triggered wars, fires, food system strains, floods, refugees projected in the tens of millions, excess air pollution deaths also in the tens of millions, and more. As Wallace-Wells puts it, no life will be “undeformed.”

And the main gain from taking that gamble? The world’s wealthy get ever more carbon-burning baubles. The shiny surface of abstract arguments for growth often hides a harder-to-face underbelly.

The current “growth” game, first, has a harsh zero-sum logic, and second, has precious little to do with ending poverty, though that argument is often used by those justifying unrestrained capitalist growth.

  1. Carbon physics reveals a global intergenerational zero-sum game: The more carbon we burn, the less carbon headroom our descendants will have. Alongside other resources consumed beyond renewable rates, scientists recently called this an “ecological Ponzi scheme.”
  2. And the “lifting people out of poverty” chorus about economic growth was dubbed an inertia-enabling “convenient alibi” by Philip Alston, formerly a UN special rapporteur on poverty: any decent analysis of the data defies that delusion, since only about 5 percent of global income gains go to the bottom 60 percent (and at this rate, it would take over 200 years to end poverty). “Nearly half [of global] growth has merely allowed the already wealthy top 10 percent to augment their consumption and enlarge their carbon footprints,” according to a recent report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Since we can’t avoid putting all our eggs into the same biosphere basket, we’d better be super prudent. Until we’re certain green growth can deliver, the sensible, “science-backed” approach suggests de-growth: a controlled curb on rich people’s consumption, to buy time for green tech (or whatever your preferred long-term climate solution is) to be deployable at scale.

Here, Covid-19 offers key lessons. We changed consumption instantly on a vast scale (way faster than we can make large political or technological changes happen). The pandemic led to a 10 percent drop in US carbon emissions in 2020, according to preliminary estimates by the Rhodium Group. We must hit that every year this decade to stabilize at 1.5°C.