Climate change has no single cause. It has resulted from the interconnected web of population, consumption, technology, and the political economy. The climate emergency requires us to recognise and grapple with this web sooner rather than later.
According to the International Panel on Climate Change, “economic and population growth [are] the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.” With increasing numbers of people, and/or increasing economic wealth, comes the need for more food, housing, clothes, transport and energy. These trends are increasing annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at such a rate that planetary ecosystems are on the brink of collapse, an outcome described by process philosophers as a “global systemic crisis.”
To examine this global systemic crisis, a fourth element “political economy” can be added to Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren’s “I=PCT”:
Environmental Impact = Population x Consumption x Technology x Political Economy
The three original variables are significantly influenced by social and economic policies. To reduce environmental impact, humans must decrease or stabilise population, dramatically decrease consumption and drastically change the nature of consumption and production. Political and economic structures and institutions can enable or prevent this from happening.
According to the United Nations (UN) latest estimates, in World Population Prospects 2019, there are approximately 7.7 billion people on the planet. The UN observes a decrease in the growth rate, predicting numbers will reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100 (median-variant projection). Population numbers tend to stabilise with the empowerment of women through education, maternal health, contraception and gender equality. Addressing these issues is crucial to addressing the systemic crisis.
Population growth is linked to social instability arising from poverty. Clearly, the structural injustices built into trade between high-income and low-income countries have augmented this poverty. At the junction of population and poverty lies a critical challenge: if low-income countries are lifted out of poverty via the traditional industrialised modes of development, GHG emissions and environmental impacts will increase. Stabilising the global population necessitates new modes of consumption and production.
Consumption and affluence
In the E=PCT formula, the variable ‘Consumption’ is sometimes replaced with ‘affluence’, as higher wealth and income correspond with substantial increases in consumption. Wealthier people take more national and international flights, use more fuel in their boats and cars, eat more meat, have larger homes to be cooled/warmed, and make more purchases from fashion to furniture (e.g. see Otto et al. 2019).
The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020 observes that personal footprints need to be reduced to approximately 2-2.5 tCO2e/year per capita by 2030 to keep global warming within 2° of preindustrial temperatures (meeting the Paris Agreement). This requires people to Avoid, Shift or Improve their material consumption. Government policies must address infrastructures to enable this decrease and shift in demand. This includes the use of technology in developing ecologically-sustainable modes of consumption and production.
Technology offers a source of hope for shifting from linear “cradle-to-grave” approaches to extraction, design, use and waste; into circular “cradle-to-cradle” approaches where waste is food for another process. This includes renewable energy production and storage, carbon capture technologies and electric-powered cars.
Yet while renewable energy sources produce less GHG emissions than fossil fuels, in their current forms these too are ecologically unsustainable. Many “renewable” energy sources rely on the extraction of non-renewable metals using fossil fuel-driven industrial production processes and have a limited lifetime (averaging 20-30 years) before needing to be replaced. Thus, it is important to evaluate the contribution of technology to mitigating the systemic crisis in a broader scheme of solutions that are continually evolving.
Investing in ongoing improvements of technologies, changing cultural norms and achieving zero-emissions outcomes relies on decision-making that puts long-term wellbeing before short-term profits.
Policies, institutions and cultural norms are integral to the success or failure of the changes discussed above. Political and economic models preoccupied with economic growth have ignored environmental wellbeing. Such a preoccupation feeds cultural norms focused on short-term monetary interests in personal and professional decision-making. Economic growth that involves increasing material throughput is not sustainable. Alternative economic approaches are found in contextual economics, which distinguishes between (un)sustainable types of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and redirects decision-making toward more holistic goals such as increasing wellbeing.
The aspect of political economy to be most urgently confronted in relation to the global systemic crisis is the extraordinary and increasing levels of economic inequality, which allows vested interests to impinge on democracy. This is accelerated via a feedback loop in which wealth compounds on itself, a “vicious cycle” in which “wealth begets power, which begets more wealth.” These power differentials inhibit democratic policymaking to mitigate climate change and other aspects of the global systemic crisis. Economic inequality also spurs the cultural aspirations of the unsustainable consumption behaviours of those with more monetary wealth.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate the innovative potential of governments and citizens to make a rapid change in policies, work and lifestyles. The pandemic has also illustrated connections between reducing GDP and reducing humanity’s impact on the environment (including reduced GHG emissions). Mitigating climate breakdown requires the continuing of such changes and annual emissions reductions.
Economic models and policies directed at wellbeing rather than GDP are better equipped to deal with such trends, which includes cumulative reductions and changes in aggregate demand and enabling technologies that help to contain human activities within planetary boundaries. Recognising these connections and contexts fosters a more holistic approach to emissions reductions and the dynamic relationship between personal choices, social and cultural norms, and political-economic structures in enabling a sustainable future.
Mitigating the global systemic crisis and reversing global warming requires reducing human environmental impact to “net zero”, with most of that transformation taking place within the next decade. Guided by a “process” mode of thought that recognises interconnections, relationships and the power that every person has to change the world together, this social transformation includes interventions in patterns of economics, technology, population and consumption.