Huhne says growth is not the planet’s enemy

Former UK Energy Secretary and ardent environmentalist Chris Huhne writes at The Guardian:

Until now the story of human prosperity has been all about cheap, abundant energy. However, something big has been happening. For the first time in history, we are growing richer while using less energy. That is unalloyed good news for budgets, incomes and the planet. We have reached a technological tipping point.

Technology is a solution to many environmental issues. Fibre for example will allow more people to work from home.

From the middle ages, living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage to the planet, because growing forests absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small. We led lives that were, in Hobbes’ phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”. Then we started burning coal on a large scale in the 18th century, and the industrial revolution made the graph look like a hockey stick: suddenly incomes were doubling in decades, following centuries of stability. After allowing for inflation, real GDP in England and Wales doubled from 1830 to 1864, again by 1898, and again by 1951, despite two world wars.

Gross domestic product is a measure of activity, not welfare. But there is plenty of evidence of real progress. If life is better than death, this surge of growth was more good news. Male life expectancy at birth in England and Wales in 1841 was just 40 years. By 1950, it was 66. On the latest figures for 2012, it is now 79 for men and 83 for women.

This unprecedented prosperity and welfare was inextricably linked to the burning of fossil fuels, and therefore to the beginning of carbon emissions and global warming. And we are paying with the steady rise in carbon and temperatures compared with pre-industrial levels.

This is why so many green thinkers have rightly been suspicious of economic growth: the curve of rising living standards has been tracked by the curve of rising energy use from coal, oil and gas. The simple answer was green puritanism: change our lifestyle. Don the hair-shirt. Stop consuming more. Stop growth – and therefore stop pollution.

Precisely, what many have argued.

The good news is that we can increasingly see a future where technology does most of the change for us. Readers of the Digest of United Kingdom energy statistics will find an extraordinary table in the new edition: the two-century link between growth and energy has broken. The UK economy has doubled in real terms since 1985, but total energy consumption is exactly the same as it was in that year. Indeed, energy consumption has fallen since 1970 while the economy has nearly trebled in size.

I wonder what the figures for NZ are?

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