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Climate-Saving Economic Miracle Debunked

Economic growth is, of course, our modern culture’s Holy Grail. We’re not willing to sacrifice economic growth for any reason, not even the salvation of human civilization. We insist, therefore, that any plan to reduce carbon emissions cannot take a chunk out of GDP growth.

Today’s nominee to the Wall of Fame doesn’t necessarily call that obsession with economic growth out for its suicidal tendencies, but it does do a great job of busting one of the myths about economic growth that some of its apologists love to promote.

Don’t be Fooled. CO2 Emissions Still Tied to Economic Growth

offers an understandable explanation of the myth of “decoupling,” in which the economy grows without increasing intensity of resource consumption and emission production. In this edition of the PBS NewsHour Making Sense report, Harvard Environmental Economics Program director Robert Stavins is refreshingly honest in introducing the subject:

“…whenever I read about the claimed ‘decoupling’ of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and economic growth, I get annoyed.”

If we could manage to truly “decouple” economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions, that would be good news for our climate, though it would do nothing for the other polluting and resource-depleting effects of economic activity. Stavins doesn’t get into these, but it’s not a serious defect, because he is, after all, debunking the decoupling myth.

“The fact that GDP is rising while emissions are falling does not mean that GDP is not affecting emissions. The appropriate counterfactual for comparison is how much emissions would have fallen had there been no growth in GDP.”

It’s an important, if less-than-obvious distinction. Stavins does a decent job of explaining why we cannot hope to grow our economy and stabilize the climate at the same time. Check it out. The inconvenient truth is that economic growth must be sacrificed if we want to leave our children a chance to live decent lives. The good news is that GDP is a lousy metric for success, progress or quality of life. I hope Stavins takes a shot at that in a future Making Sense column.

I offer a shout-out to PBS NewsHour correspondent Paul Salmon, who I believe supervises the Making Sense segments and columns. for offering thoughtful content which, in this case, runs counter to much of the conventional wisdom our media tends to repeat way too much. Thanks also, of course, to Robert Stavins.

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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