By Christiane Kliemann

By Christiane Kliemann

Shortly before the most crucial UN climate change conference after the failure of Copenhagen, it seems that the international climate-movement is finally getting its act together: resistance against fossil fuel extraction is gaining ground and a rising global movement is putting pressure on institutions to divest their money from fossil fuels to finance renewables instead. Green jobs in the renewable energy sector have been a success story and it is broadly accepted that we need to keep 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to prevent runaway climate change. Last year, more than 400 000 people flooded the streets of New York City in the largest climate march in history and, as the global development of renewable energy increases in scale and efficiency, people are starting to believe in a transition away from fossil fuel dependency.

This is of course good news, and nobody concerned about climate change would seriously doubt that the global transition towards renewable energy is an absolute necessity. However, much as right-wing conservatives, mostly in the US, deny anthropogenic climate change, the majority of the climate movement tends to deny an equally important issue: that renewables are unable to maintain our Western growth-based consumer lifestyles on a global level.

“Renewable” does not equal “unlimited”

The limitations and environmental impacts of renewables are being discussed in breadth and depth elsewhere; suffice to say here that e.g. wind mills and solar panels are very energy-intensive in production – and intensive in other natural resources too, such as metals, minerals and rare earths. Windmills for example require lots of concrete which is a highly CO2 intensive industry. Solar photovoltaic systems use on average 23-59 kg of aluminium per kW – the aluminium sector being another CO2 intensive industry. So the term “renewable” does not at all equal “unlimited”. Not to mention the usual blind spots among green-tech enthusiasts – the growing aviation, transport and agro industry sectors for which no serious fossil-free scenarios for the mid-term future exist. Already, the competition for soil between food production, climate-relevant forests, energy plants, traffic and industrial infrastructure-sprawl is tense. What if we added millions of windmills and solar panels in order to generate electricity for transport? Or worse, energy crops to produce biofuels? And from where would we get the resources and energy to build up such massive infrastructure in the first place, including batteries?

On top if this comes the largely unquestioned assumption that the rightful demands of the poor in the Global South (and elsewhere) for better living conditions can only or best be met by following Western development and consumption patterns. From an environmental standpoint, this is an absurdity, even if we plastered the world with renewables as fast as possible. From a standpoint of social justice it cannot be denied that the same rights should apply to all – including the right of the South to choose the same “development” path as the North .

The environmentalism of the poor and the struggle for social justice

However, the countless social conflicts around the extraction and exploitation of environmental resources reveal the absurdity of this assumption from a social justice perspective too. As one after the other natural boundary is exceeded, the overuse of all kinds of natural resources is increasingly taking place at the expense of other people. Voicing the concerns of these people, the “environmentalism of the poor” movement therefore points to the linkage between social and environmental issues and calls for a different type of growth for the Global South. This includes, amongst others, different and radically democratic means to distribute, use and control natural resources as well as technology. As climate-justice activist Sunita Narain from India has put it:

[People in the South] “will need to rebuild security by rebuilding local food, water and livelihood security in all villages and cities of their world. And in doing this they will have to reinvent the capital- and material-intensive growth paradigm of the industrialised North, which deepens the divide between the rich and the poor. They will have to do things differently in their own backyards. But, more importantly, these countries will have to become the voice of the voiceless, so that they can demand changes in the rules of globalisation in the interest of all.”

Alternative growth in the South requires degrowth in the North

To be able to successfully develop a different type of growth, the countries of the South will require their fair share of the global resources and emissions – which must be much more than the leftovers of the rich North. By consequence the Global North will have to drastically reduce its emissions and resource exploitation. This is, however, impossible within the framework of continuous capitalist economic growth. According to a groundbreaking study from the UK, the early industrialized countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 8-10 percent every year to keep within their fair share of the assumed global carbon budget. The German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WBGU) translates this into individual carbon footprints of only 2,7 tons annually on global average. A simple comparison with e.g. the 11,2 tons the average German citizen emitted in 2011 shows that such heavy reduction cannot be achieved without dramatic changes in the affluent lifestyles of the majority in the Global North.

These figures apply to climate change only. When considered together with other planetary boundaries, it becomes even clearer that we can’t simply rely on technological progress without overhauling the whole economic, social and political environment this progress is embedded in. As many examples in history show, purely technological solutions tend to relocate their negative effects to other sectors, ecosystems or continents, or from the present to the future.

Climate justice and climate stability – one is impossible without the other

If we want to have a fair chance to stop climate change at an acceptable degree, embracing the concept of climate justice is key, particularly in the Global North. Regardless of any ethical deliberations, it is a simple practical necessity. If we in the Global North with all our material overflow, capital and technological “progress” are unable to reduce our emissions to the required degree, we can’t realistically expect this from the Global South where Millions of people are still unable to meet their basic needs. Without the Global North contributing its fair share, e.g. the BRICS countries will neither be able nor willing to take on even more responsibility for keeping the climate safe – and the temperature will keep rising while the global community is debating fake solutions such as green growth.

Global security is yet another important issue to consider. There is evidence that climate change and resource constraints will lead to endless wars in the future and that drought and food scarcity have already contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East. The plight of the refugees currently drowning in the Mediterranean is only a glimpse of what will happen when climate change and other resource scarcities make large parts of the Earth uninhabitable. Viewed from this angle, it is obvious that social stability is a prerequisite for successful climate action, just as environmental justice and a stable climate are prerequisites for social stability. Desperate people don’t care about the climate when their daily survival is at stake.

In order to keep our climate safe, it is important to reveal the connections between all current social and environmental struggles and climate change and to acknowledge that we have to turn away from the path of eternal economic growth. As the Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein writes in her recent book “This Changes Everything“, it’s about nothing less than the decision between capitalism and our climate. The situation has culminated to produce a situation where all standard solutions will be insufficient. As for the international climate movement, this might be a unique chance in history to bring about systemic change – and the last chance for the climate. The arguments for a new economic and social paradigm beyond capital accumulation and constant economic growth have never been stronger.


Christiane Kliemann is a freelance journalist focusing on degrowth, alternative economy and societal change. She has been part of the organizing team of the Leipzig Degrowth Conference and is taking care of this blog. Before she has been working with the UNFCCC secretariat and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Comments ( 4 )

  • John Weber says:

    I have various essays on “renewables” that you might find of interest. This is part of one:
    Solar energy collecting devices have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.
    I have provided both charts and videos for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.
    Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the videos has its own industrial interconnection and history.
    I have others; however, my question on this is who will go first on ‘regrowth’. I am not challenging the concept just the willingness although I believe it won’ be a choice.
    Many parents work hard to assure their children’s future. Many if asked would give their lives for their children and grandchildren. If a culture/society is at threat from outside forces, starvation or environmental stress, this support for the next generations falls by the wayside. However, in general, mothers, fathers and grandparents will protect the future of their offspring.

    We are surrounded by a litany of threats to the future – fracking, deep ocean drilling, tar sands; pollution from mountain top removal, destruction of natural resources, dying oceans, climate disasters of epic proportions, dangers of genetic engineering; corporate control, and population overshoot to name a few of the less subtle. Some would have more technology to combat these problems or at best forestall them.
    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
    Albert Einstein

    For citizens of developed nations, this is about lifestyle – energy and other resource consumption – will we change our lifestyle for the children and grandchildren’s future? NO.

    And now for a rousing chorus of – Yes, but . . .

    There is one legitimate “Yes, but . . .
    You can’t get there (wherever there is) from here!

  • Dirk Philipsen says:

    An excellent and thoughtful piece – thanks to Sally for bringing it to my attention. Christiane raises all the right questions about a viable path forward, and is dead-on that there is a lot of naivete about possibilities for technology (and particularly renewable energy) to get us out of our collective bind. I would add, however, that the question is not only growth or de-growth. Most fundamentally, it seems to me we have to ask what direction the economy should take in order to serve the needs of people and the ecosystem, i.e. how to shift from more to better, from quantity to quality, from mere output to actual development (all questions I address in my 2015 book “The Little Big Number – How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do About it.”

    Thanks again for a good piece!

  • Sally Wengrover, Ph.D. says:

    Thanks for an excellent essay, Christiane, and thanks for your insightul comments, Tere!
    Here are my two cents: Conventional methods of coping with environmental degradation aren’t getting the job done. Thus, we must stop waiting for some omnipotent entity (government, market, or technology) to solve problems from on high. Each of us must accept responsibility for our marginal share of those problems and help prevent social and ecological chaos by cutting our consumption of things we don’t truly need. We must, in other words, keep in mind that degrowth begins at home and “degrow” our individual lifestyles.

  • Tere Mahoney says:

    This is such an important concept: degrowth. Thought through in detail like Christiane has done – the true consequences of ‘growth mentality’ – one can’t help but reach the same conclusion: that this continued obsession we have with consumption has got to end, and be replaced with something more sustainable. It will mean giving things up. It will mean loss of some privileges we currently take for granted. It will mean thinking about people who have less than us. It will mean a long, deep introspection into why we WANT WANT WANT so much in the first place.
    If this scares you, ask yourself this: is the way things are really working that great for you anyways? Maybe change won’t be quite so bad as you think.

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