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Transition versus transformation; change is needed but how fast?

by | Feb 28, 2024 | 2 comments

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Given the risks of catastrophic climate change, a possible anthropogenic mass extinction event, and seriously bad and irreversible climate tipping points, a precautionary approach to managing the future must rapidly decouple, in absolute terms, economic growth from environmental impacts. This requires much more than ‘steady-as-she-goes’ transitions. Despite this, ‘transitionists’ hold the floor. Quentin Grafton discusses the folly of accepting the ‘transition’ line of reasoning.

Business as Usual needs to change. This is because on our current path, we will likely experience global heating that could eventually kill tens of millions of people and displace many more from their homes and livelihoods. This is not just a human problem. On our current trajectory we could experience a mass extinction of species and planetary destruction of habitats at a scale not witnessed in 66 million years when the dinosaurs went extinct.

Very few political leaders publicly disagree with the need to change the relationship between economic growth and its many negative environmental impacts. But there is a great deal of disagreement about what change is needed and, especially, how fast it should happen.

For this discussion, I will divide those who agree that change must happen into two camps. The first is the ‘transition’ camp, those who believe that steady and incremental progress and ‘Green Growth’ will deliver. The second is the ‘transformation’ or Beyond Growth camp, those who believe that a rapid, even a radical, decoupling of economic growth and environmental impacts is required.

Those who believe incremental change is sufficient to ‘turnaround the oil tanker’ by 2050 point to a declining rate of increase in the global population that is projected to peak at 10.4 billion in the 2080s. Some in the transition camp, such as the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, believe that anything faster than a slow transition will generate costs that far exceed the benefits. That is, a slow transition is the preferred response to the world’s environmental crises.

In the transformation camp, the view is that a rapid change in how economies are structured, and that includes a radical reduction in the environmental consequences of economic growth, is necessary if world welfare is to be maintained.

IPAT makes the case for transformation

To better understand the merits of the transition and transformation camps, the so-called IPAT Equation shows the mechanics of economic growth and environmental impacts. Here, Total Environmental Impact (I) is a ‘bad’ and is a function of: Population (P); Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita or Affluence (A); and ‘Technology’ (T) which is defined as the intensity of material and energy use (a lower intensity means a lower environmental impact per $ of GDP). That is,

I = P x A x T

Thus, to have say, declining GHG emissions (I) globally, it must be true that declines in material and energy use (T)are sufficiently large to more than completely offset increases in GDP (P X A) for the world as a whole.

Those in the transition or Green Growth camp highlight a ‘decoupling’ of key pollutants from economic growth in higher-income countries. This includes a decline in visible air pollution (eg, particulate matter) in many cities in richer countries. In support of their transition view, they observe that the world’s largest economy, the United States, experienced positive economic growth in 2023 yet still reduced its own greenhouse gas emissions. They further observe that, at least for many middle and high-income countries, growth in material inputs and energy use (known as material and energy intensity) is less than their economic growth. This means that the relative environmental and/or resource impact per $ of GDP for some high-income countries is declining over time.

A key contributor to the beneficial economic growth-environmental impact decoupling observed in some rich countries is that more polluting industries have migrated from richer to poorer nations. This means that decoupling is much harder to achieve globally. Whether absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental impacts is possible for the world is a grand debate. It has not yet happened for global greenhouse emissions, nor for the total material footprint of nations.

But emissions are still rising

Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise post COVID and were 1.1% greater in 2023 than 2022. And contrary to their stated policies and pledges, planned fossil fuel investments in the 20 largest fossil-fuel producing countries out to 2030 (2050) would result in 69% (150%) greater production. Such investments, if realized, are inconsistent with limiting the average global surface temperature increase to 20 C.

Within the Transition and Green Growth camp are the consensus agreements of national governments at the Conference of the Parties (COP), the annual gathering of leaders and ministers attending the decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the 2023 COP meeting in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), governments, for the first time, and after much debate and to great fanfare, agreed to transition “…away from fossil fuels in energy systems in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”.

The President of COP 28 and Head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber, claimed that with the December 2023 COP 28 agreement “We have delivered a robust action plan to keep 1.5C in reach”.

Yet, less than a month later, it was confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record and it was about 1.50 C greater than the pre-industrial average. According to the climate scientist James Hansen, the 2023 global average surface temperatures means that  “the 1.5°C ceiling has been passed for all practical purposes”. We can wish that 2023 were an outlier but time series analysis of mean global surface temperatures suggests otherwise. That is, annual global surface temperature increases previously exhibited a linear trend but the most recent data, accounting for annual anomalies, indicates an accelerating trend (annual temperatures are getting hotter at a faster rate).

Net Zero by 2050 needs a transformation

Whether or not the world experiences accelerated warming, there is no doubt that transformational change is required to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050; agreed to by national governments at COP 26 in Glasgow. That is, to avoid dangerous climate change of 20 Celsius warming or more, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak now and then rapidly decline with substitution away from fossil fuels to alternatives, including renewables.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2021: “Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 requires nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system”. Such a transformational pathway means, according to the IEA, that globally there should be no new approved oil and gas fields and no new coal mines or coal-mine extensions. This didn’t happen in 2021 and won’t happen in 2024. Based on the production plans of the biggest fossil-fuel producing countries, it may not even happen for a bunch more years.

Given the risks of catastrophic climate change, a possible anthropogenic mass extinction event, and seriously bad and irreversible climate tipping points, a precautionary approach to managing the future must rapidly decouple, in absolute terms, economic growth from environmental impacts. This requires much more than ‘steady-as-she-goes’ transitions. It demands, for a start, truth telling so that most people understand that the world they know (and knew) is going (gone) and that to avoid the very real risks of dystopian future there must be rapid and transformational change to dematerialise economic systems.

More democracy, not less

Despite the rhetoric of some, neither conservation payments, biodiversity credits and carbon offsets, nor technological change, will be sufficient in the time available to deliver either ‘Nature Positive’ or Net Zero emissions by 2050. This is because for transformational change to happen, we must also overcome the barriers stopping change including those who want to maintain the status quo.

This requires more democracy not less. It’s about effectively responding to some key questions: Who gets to make the key decisions? Who are held accountable for what gets done? Who pays for the transformation? And how can the transformation get done rapidly, equitably, and cost-effectively? I will try to respond to these difficult questions in future discussions.

Banner image: Image by Văn Long Bùi from Pixabay


  1. Ram Pandit

    “transition vs transformation” – a very good read. We surely need transformation not just the transition in my view.

  2. Colin Steley snr

    Thanks Quentin for this thoughtful and thought provoking post.


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