Report Calls for New Measures of National Development, Beyond GDP

Nov 30, 2009

Climate change cannot be addressed in a vacuum; it is only the most prominent consequence of an obsession with economic growth as the only path to development, a coalition of environmental of social justice groups argues in a report released Monday.

The public debate on climate change so far has focused heavily on such issues as emissions targets, costs to industry and the safe upper limits global temperatures, but these only graze the surface of some of the underlying causes, the authors write.

The goal of their report, "Other Worlds are Possible–Human Progress in an Age of Climate Change", published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the New Economics Foundation on behalf of the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, is to raise awareness of the damage stemming from what Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chairman Rajendra Pachauri calls "our current development paradigm."

"It is clear that current mitigation and adaptation responses are inadequate and that the model of development currently being pursued globally will only exacerbate the worsening impacts of climate change," Pachauri writes in a foreword to the report.

He hopes the report will be "a call-to-action for the creation of a more responsible and sustainable development paradigm."

The fact that the world's climates have been changing is only one — though a major — outcome of the current paradigm.

"Climate change, important as it is, is nevertheless a symptom of a deeper malady, namely our fixation on unlimited growth of the economy as the solution to nearly all problems," writes Herman E. Daly, a professor at the University of Maryland and prominent ecological economist.

"Apply an anodyne to climate and, if growth continues, something else will soon burst through limits of past adaptation and finitude, thereby becoming the new crisis on which to focus our worries."

The "problems" to which Daly is referring are familiar ones — lack of access to health care, inadequate education, poverty, a widening gap between the rich countries and the poor — but, according to the report, the approach that has been taken to mitigate them in the past has done little to help and has often exacerbated the problems.

This occurs as industrialized governments put forward global economic growth as a cure for all the world's problems. The benefits of such growth accrue to the industrialized countries, while the costs fall disproportionately to developing countries, the authors write.

"Poorer countries are being set up to fail," the report concludes.

"In the old convictions about global growth as a panacea, it is as if we hope that by turning natural capital into financial capital we can somehow disengage ourselves from our dependence on the natural environment. In climate change, we find evidence that this approach is misguided, myopic and unsustainable."

The report bounces between climate change, development issues and a critique of the global economic system, but this is part of the point the authors are trying to make — that all these issues are indelibly linked and can be traced back to unsustainable economic models and the consensus decision to stick to these models even when faced with their failures and negative effects.

While climate change is just one of many effects, it is also the one that brings a very real threat to the developing world. In recapping recent research on climate change, the authors paint a picture of inadequate action and overly optimistic targets. The 2 degrees Celsius rise in global surface temperature that policymakers and scientists have agreed the planet should not be allowed to pass, for instance, would still inundate small island states. "1.5C is a better target as many of them will disappear with warming beyond this point," it says, citing a June study in the journal Nature.

What is ultimately needed, the report says, is a shift in economic models.

Rather than encouraging a one-size-fits-all path to development, governments must recognize that, rather than helping alleviate the problems of poor populations, these strategies have significantly contributed to problems like climate change, the authors write. In addition, a world full of countries consuming at the pace of the United States would never be able to survive on the finite resources of the planet.

New development paths are needed, paths that do not depend so heavily on the idea that economic growth is always good, the authors of the Other Worlds Are Possible report write.

These paths must be qualitative, rather than quantitative, and, as such, focus on the broader development of society's potential — on general well-being of the population as well as income. The paths also must be particular to the individual societies they are meant to assist.

Toward this end, the solutions proffered in the report are a hodgepodge of largely local, small-scale alternatives to conventional economic models, what they authors term "a sleeping architecture of better ways to organize our economies, communities and livelihoods."

"We have, in fact, much more choice about our collective economic future than we have been led to believe," the authors write.

They catalog individual projects by NGOs affiliated with the Working Group that might be expanded and combined into new economic and development models, such as organic farming in the Philippines, seed saving in Ecuador and composting in Lima.

In addition to these specific initiatives, which they admit are relatively uncoordinated and currently exist outside the mainstream, are broader models like Bhutan's favoring of gross national happiness over gross national product and the NEF-endorsed Green New Deal, which proposes a restructuring of financial systems and investment to simultaneously deal with a "triple crunch" of climate change, financial crisis and potentially declining oil production.

Christian Aid, a member of the Working Group, supports Greenhouse Development Rights, a framework meant to tackle climate change while also addressing poverty in developing countries. GDRs quantify the responsibility and capacity of each country to take action on climate change with the idea that wealthier individuals who have produced higher levels of emissions must take on the bulk of the cost. According to the indexes used, the U.S. would be responsible for about 33 percent of global action, the EU for 25 percent, China for 5 percent, India for 0.5 percent and the Least Developed Countries for 0.1 percent. This would allow the poorest of the poor to "focus their attention on meeting the needs of their people, especially as climate change impacts increase," the group says.

While small-scale farming and other local initiatives are clearly feasible on a community level and have had success in the past, it remains to be seen whether an overhaul of prevailing economic models will be possible any time soon — or whether a proposal that assigns responsibility according to GDR figures would get serious consideration at a global climate summit starting next week.

The idea of looking beyond GDP to gauge development is gaining an audience at the highest levels of government, however.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy in September proposed expanding the gauge of national success in a way that goes beyond gross domestic product to include measures of environmental sustainability and the well-being of the population. The general problem with GDP is that it measures the value of goods and services produced without considering the impacts on human health, well-being and natural resources. The result is that something as costly as crime can increase GDP because it increases the need for additional policing and medical services.

Sarkozy has argued that the global financial crisis could have been predicted if the world's primary economic models had also considered sustainability. While France intends to keep GDP as its primary measure of economic development, its statistics office is working on a additional measures, officials say.

Alternative approaches such as gross happiness underline the connection between development as it has been pursued so far and impacts such as climate change. Any discussion of how to address climate change, the report's authors hope, will take into account the consequences of past economic models and the potential of alternative ones.

 

See also:

Without Functioning Ecosystem, There Is No Economic Growth

Europe's Cities Show How to Lower Emissions While Raising Living Standards

Life Expectancy, Carbon Footprints and a Happy Planet

 

 

(Chart: Global Footprint Network)

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