As US carbon emissions rise, the need for systemic change is clearer than ever

Power plant emitting CO2.
Peter Bolton

Recently released estimates show how US carbon emissions rose significantly in 2018. This is in spite of reductions in coal-derived energy and Obama-era drives to cut consumption.

This once again raises the question of whether tinkering around the edges of our economic and political systems is enough to deal with the climate chaos we face.

Disappointing rise after signs of progress

On 8 January, the Rhodium Group research firm released a study providing a preliminary estimate of a 3.4% increase in CO2 emissions in the US for 2018. The data is both troubling and confounding, especially as the previous three years all recorded a decline in emissions.

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The increase was so large that it represents the “second largest annual gain in more than two decades”. Furthermore, carbon emissions have generally been experiencing a steady overall decline since 2005, owing in large part to developments in renewable energy and increased use of natural gas.

As the New York Times reported, the increase comes in spite of “a near-record number of coal plants around the United States [having been] retired last year.” It also pointed to another possible explanation, insisting that:

as the United States economy grew at a strong pace last year, emissions from factories, planes and trucks soared.

Unlimited growth at odds with climate responsibility?

The question of whether economic and other forms of growth could be fundamentally at odds with averting climate chaos is nothing new. In 1972, four academics associated with the environmentalist Club of Rome published a widely-debated book called The Limits to Growth.

They argued that failure to address trends in economic and population growth would lead to “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” at some point in the 21st Century. It was not entirely fatalistic, however. The scholars also argued that the development of stable and ecologically sustainable economic systems could avert this catastrophe for human societies across the planet.

The book first met with ridicule. A New York Times article, for example, described it as “an empty and misleading work.” Researchers at the University of Sussex, meanwhile, dismissed it as excessively pessimistic. And Yale University economist Henry C. Wallich argued that the work discounted the role technology could play in addressing such problems, and that deliberately slowing down growth could negatively impact poverty reduction.

As the new millennium dawned, however, esteem for the book began to rise.

The lost decades

In 2000, energy economist Matthew Simmons stated:

In hindsight, The Club of Rome turned out to be right. We simply wasted 30 important years ignoring this work.

In 2010, meanwhile, Danish scientists Jørgen Stig Nørgård, John Peet and Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir described the work as a “pioneering report”, which “has withstood the test of time and, indeed, has only become more relevant.”

In 2012, investigative journalist Christian Parenti said:

The Limits to Growth was a scientifically rigorous and credible warning that was actively rejected by the intellectual watchdogs of powerful economic interests. A similar story is playing out now around climate science.

And in 2014, the Guardian published an article reporting on research from the University of Melbourne showing that the book’s forecasts are accurate.

Time to get real

It’s time for global public opinion to consider very seriously whether tinkering at the edges of our economic norms is really going to be enough. Perhaps instead we should be looking for more radical change. The debate surrounding The Limits to Growth is palpably as relevant as ever, and it increasingly seems like its authors were right all along.

Featured image via Pixabay

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