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There are no limits to growth: CSIRO says so

By Ted Trainer - posted Thursday, 19 November 2015

This study (by eighteen authors) concludes that Australia can achieve sustainable levels of resource use and environmental impact by 2050 without interfering with economic growth and without any radical change in values or behavior. About twenty scenarios are modeled, and reported in many detailed plots in the c. 25 page Nature article plus the Supplementary Information document. These credentials make it likely that the findings will be widely reported and accepted.

The study contradicts head on the now enormous literature supporting the case that there are limits to growth, that we have gone through them, and that the consequences will be very nasty. It is therefore extremely important that this statement should be examined carefully to see whether it is convincing. It is in fact easy to show that it is far from unconvincing and does not provide reasons to doubt the limits case. It is disturbing that the CSIRO would put out such a flawed document. Following is a brief outline of the main problems.

The basic fault is to do with the logic of the report. It simply does not even try to do what it claims to have done. Although on first encounter it is difficult to see the logic, what is being said is essentially, if we doubled the annual rate of improvement in materials use efficiency and imposed a carbon price up to sixteen times the present price, then by 2050 there would not be significant reduction of GDP. But the crucial question here is obviously, can we do those things. Can we improve resource use efficiency at a rate that wouldcut it to an astounding 4% of the present value by 2050? So one would expect the paper to give a lot of space to evidence and argument showing that this is possible. But it gives no space at all to this question. The study is simply an exploration of what would happen if we did those two things.


I wrote to the CSIRO authors asking for their grounds for using such a remarkable decoupling rate assumption and was referred to a single study, by Schandl et al. (2015.) Not only does this paper also contain no evidence on the issue, it concludes (on p. 5):

"Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint." (They do say carbon emissions would go down.)

"…even strong carbon abatement and large investment into resource efficiency would see global energy use growing from …(416 EJ/y to 1128 EJ/y in 2050, which is enormous, probably the highest prediction you will find.)

"…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity in all three scenarios."

There are two measures of decoupling. "Relative decoupling" refers to where growth in one factor can be slowed compared with growth in another. But given that the planet is suffering resource and ecological insults that are already far too great, what growth advocates need to show us is that "absolute" decoupling is occurring, or possible, that is that GDP can continue to grow while there is an annual fall in the amounts of energy and materials used and ecological impact. It is clear that at present this is not happening (Burton, 2015.), Indeed all the important measures show alarming growth rates for the worrying items. For instance over the longer term the growth in energy use and carbon emissions have tracked almost exactly in parallel with GWP growth, materials use trebled last century, and just about all indices of ecological damage are rising.

So it is not correct for this paper to say, "We find that substantial economic and physical decoupling is possible." (Abstract, and see also p. 49.) That is not what they find; it is what they assume when they take that 4.5% p.a. figure for the improvement in resource use. That improvement rate is in fact a decoupling rate; they are saying they will put into their scenarios an assumed annual 4.5% reduction in resource use per unit of GDP. The study's optimistic scenario ("Stretch") just explores the consequences of this decoupling rate plus the carbon price assumption. In other words what the study finds are the consequences of those assumptions. They have clearly not found that decoupling is possible, and it is very important to understand this major fault in the logic of the paper.


There are strong reasons for thinking that a decoupling effect could not be sufficiently powerful to achieve the outcomes this paper envisages. According to these authors by 2050 Australian GDP can multiply by 2.7 while resource use falls 35%. That would leave a ratio of resource use to GDP that is around one-fifth of the present level. No evidence or reason is given to indicate why this is thought to be possible -- in an era when just about all material, biological and ecological resource grades, costs, scarcities problems etc. are deteriorating rapidly. Add the cumulative global resource depletion that will occur in the next 35 years during which they estimate that GWP will multiply by 2.5.

There are numerous well known indices which show how enormous decoupling would have to be if economic growth could continue while resource and ecological impacts become sustainable. For instance the World Wildlife Fund's "Footprint" analysis shows that the amount of productive land needed to provide an Australian with energy, food, water and shelter is about 7-8 ha. If 9.7 billion people were to live as we do then we'd need up to 78 billion ha of productive land … but that's about ten times the amount there is on the planet. And if present loss rates continue we will have only about half the present amount of cropland by 2050.

Similarly, if by 2050 all 9.7 billion people were to have risen to the GDP per capita Australians would have then given 3% p.a. economic growth, world economic output would be about 25 times as great every year as it is now. Is it plausible that "decoupling" could allow GWP, the amount of producing, purchasing and using up going on, to multiply by 20+ while rich world per capita resource use can be cut to one-tenth or one-twentieth of the present total? What is the case for thinking that anything like this could be done?

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About the Author

Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. You can find more on his work here.

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