A group of leading international researchers have issued a stark new warning to governments that relying on technology alone will not be enough to address the growing climate emergency, saying that presumptions that economic growth can continue unchecked should be challenged.
In a new research paper, published in the academic journal Nature, researchers from Europe, the UK and Australia challenge the presumption that wealthier nations can continue to chase uninterrupted economic growth while maintaining a realistic chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
The researchers argue that technology alone will not be enough to address climate change – rebutting the rhetoric of the Morrison government’s preferred ‘technology not taxes’ approach.
They say that decades of delay in acting on global emissions will now require wealthier countries to make lifestyle changes if there is any hope of limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees.
“Because we’ve not implemented significant emissions reductions over the past decades when we should have, we now need to reduce emissions rapidly and like we’ve never done before,” one of the authors of the paper, University of Sydney physicist professor Manfred Lenzen, said.
“We cannot keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees using technology alone – unfortunately this will require lifestyle changes in wealthy countries.”
The researchers question the viability of technologies being touted as a potential future solution to greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that it was risky to assume that technologies like carbon capture and storage technologies could play a substantial role in reducing global greenhouse gas concentrations.
“Alternative carbon removal strategies such as direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) may avoid some of these problems, but could use up to 50 per cent of the world’s current electricity generation to achieve the carbon removal rates assumed in existing scenarios, making it more difficult to decarbonize global energy supply,” the paper says.
“In light of these uncertainties, scientists increasingly regard reliance on negative emissions technologies to be speculative and risky. If this approach fails, we will be locked into a high-temperature trajectory from which it would be impossible to escape.”
In Australia, the Morrison government has adopted a ‘technology not taxes’ approach to climate policy, saying that by focusing government resources on a selection of handpicked priority technologies, it may be able to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without imposing a price on carbon.
But in the new paper, the researchers argue that many climate scenarios being used by governments have made risky assumptions about the ability of new technologies to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without substantially impacting on current lifestyles.
The researchers say that such assumptions could be dangerous, that policymakers should be open to the idea that changes in lifestyles may be necessary and assumptions about future economic growth may need to be challenged.
“Scientists have raised substantial questions about the risks of negative emissions technologies and the feasibility of sufficiently decoupling economic growth from rising emissions. Put bluntly, these approaches may not be adequate to address the crisis we face,” co-author of the paper and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Dr Jason Hickel, said.
“We’re gambling the future of humanity and the rest of life on earth because of the assumption that GDP must continue to grow in rich countries.”
The researchers propose that governments look to achieving social progress by other means, including by more directly tackling causes of inequality, increasing wages and improving access to education, health care and affordable housing.
“Given the enormous challenge of confronting the climate crisis and following the precautionary principle, modellers should consider a wider range of policy options in order to expand the public debate about climate mitigation and to reflect the plurality of visions for a sustainable world,” the paper says.
“Post-growth scholarship calls for high-income nations to shift away from pursuing GDP growth and to focus instead on provisioning for human needs and well-being, such as by reducing inequality, ensuring living wages, shortening the working week to maintain full employment, and guaranteeing universal access to public healthcare, education, transportation, energy, water and affordable housing.”
“This approach enables strong social outcomes to be achieved without growth, and creates space for countries to scale down ecologically destructive and socially less necessary forms of production and consumption, as proposed by degrowth research.”
The paper comes at the same time as a new research briefing prepared by the Australian-based Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration warns that a global focus on setting targets to achieve zero net emissions by 2050 would lead to a failure to address global warming and would lock in the use of fossil fuels for decades into the future.