From efficiency to sufficiency: the new logic of sustainability

[Published in the Irish Times on Thursday 23rd June 2022]

This year, Earth Overshoot Day will take place on the 28th of July.

This day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Scientists estimate that we would need the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological services we currently use.

The consequences of resource depletion and overuse are becoming all too evident. Increasing degradation of land and marine ecosystems, accumulation of waste and the alarming growth in concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are not just local problems but global emergencies. Five of the planetary boundaries have been overshot: climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous loading and land-system change. However, for many poor countries, increasing levels of resource use and energy consumption are still necessary to achieve basic needs.

A crucial question therefore is the level of biophysical resource use that would meet basic needs, and how this could be extended to all people without exceeding critical planetary boundaries. There is now a significant body of research which attempts to answer this question quantitatively for a range of ecological and social indicators.

Researchers at the University of Leeds together with chapter 5 of the latest IPCC report point to the concept of sufficiency and degrowth. It’s not just a question of doing more with less: sufficiency requires a paradigm shift towards ‘enoughness’, a model for economics that is shaped around intra- and intergenerational fair shares of the world’s resources. Sufficiency is a field of action that seeks to enhance the material wellbeing of the world’s poorest but simultaneously supports a more just distribution of the scarce resources provided by the Earth.

The 6th IPCC assessment report endorses some of this approach highlighting the potential for a socio-cultural transition based on modal shifts, plant-based diets and prioritising ways in which decent living standards can be provided in ways that bring multiple interacting benefits. But sufficiency is not just about reducing consumption. On the production side, business models will need to understand value creation in new ways that support product longevity and sharing practices, as well as a fundamental shift in sales tactics and marketing. Fundamentally however, sufficiency demands a reorientation towards limited or no growth in profits and GDP.

Conventional neo-classical economics maintains that degrowth is unnecessary as GDP growth can be maintained if economic growth is ‘decoupled’ from resource use through, for example, improving energy efficiencies, new technology and renewables. But GDP growth makes climate action much, much harder because the scale effect of growth drives up resource use.

The scholar Jason Hickel notes that an equity framework requires rich, high-emitting countries to commit to around 13% annual reduction rates in GHGs. However, this figure is seven times the decoupling (or efficiency improvement) rates between 1970 and 2013. It is not realistic he argues, for wealthy countries to rely on relative decoupling to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. Absolute emission reductions and much lower levels of resource use will be necessary in ways that limit the possibility of rebound effects, where savings in energy use are eaten up by other activities.

Staying within planetary boundaries also requires a radical global redistribution of wealth from the rich North to the global South. As Hickel notes, this amounts to a fundamental reorientation of development theory from focusing primarily on the deficiencies of poor countries to focussing on the excesses of rich countries, including Ireland. This could involve caps on resource use and pollution for key indicators so that we never extract more than the Earth can safely regenerate, and never pollute more than it can absorb.

For rich countries an equitable global framework requires very significant reductions in per capita material and ecological footprints, as well as drastic and sustained reductions in CO2 emissions. However, many researchers argue that de-growth can be achieved without any loss to social wellbeing, and that it could even enhance well-being if done equitably. Staying within the safe operating space for humanity, or the doughnut, as Kate Raworth describes it, could be accomplished by downscaling ecologically destructive industries, while shortening the working week, by distributing existing income and resources more fairly through progressive taxation and reallocation into social spending.

The general trend shows that the more social thresholds a country achieves, the more biophysical boundaries it transgresses, and vice versa. Breaking this this vicious and inequitable cycle will require an entirely different model of progress and a new ethic that embraces sufficiency and equity together.

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