The degrowth argument raises essential issues, however, its response to the climate crisis is debatable. This article will discuss criticisms of the degrowth argument, especially as seen from the perspective of the ongoing energy and mobility transformation.
* This article was originally published in July 2022 issue of “Environment and Pollution (『環境と公害』)” by Iwanami Shoten. Translation by ISEP.
By IIDA Tetsunari
Founder & Chairperson, Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies
Degrowth has been the focus of much attention in recent years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first discussed degrowth in its latest AR6 Working Group III report (IPCC 2022)1Degrowth is discussed in Chapters 1, 3, 5, and 17 of IPCC AR6 WGIII (Apr. 5th, 2022). , and a book on degrowth (Saito 2020) became a bestseller in Japan. Although the degrowth theory has a long history, its current momentum probably began about 10 years ago. In response to the widening social disparities and divisions caused by neoliberalism and financial capitalism, a worldwide solidarity movement with the motto “We are the 99%” grew in line with the globalization of social media. Subsequently, the climate crisis emerged as an urgent global agenda, with the young Generation Z raising their voices against the climate crisis, and became a central issue in the degrowth debate.
The degrowth argument raises essential issues, and this article does not intend to deny it head-on. However, I disagree with the arguments of the degrowth theory regarding the response to the climate crisis. This article will discuss criticisms of the degrowth argument, especially as seen from the perspective of the ongoing energy and mobility transformation.
1. Summary of criticisms of degrowth theory in this article
The following is a summary of the criticisms and arguments attempted in this article.
- Misperceptions about the ongoing energy and mobility transformation and its confusion with ecomodernism, accelerationism, and technological optimism
- Doubts about the decoupling and energy balance ratios on which the degrowth argument is based
- Lack of time and international political response to the climate crisis in degrowth theory
- Lack of energy efficiency and energy service perspectives in the degrowth argument
The following is an image of the author’s perception of the position of the degrowth theory, green growth, and related claims (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Positioning of Degrowth Theory, Green Growth, and Technology Disruption｜Source: Made by the author
2. The rise of degrowth theory
The theory of degrowth, which has been taken up by the IPCC, may have its origins in the 1972 Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” (Meadows 1972), but in modern history its origins can be traced back to the 1960s, when environmental pollution caused by rapid growth in the US, Europe and Japan became a major social issue, and in 1972, the first global environmental summit, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, was held. At the same time, the oil crisis, nuclear power development, and opposition to nuclear power were flourishing, and energy issues, symbolized by the anti-nuclear power movement, were at the center of the environmental movement in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, the time has come to the era of ecological modernization symbolized by the idea of “sustainable development” proposed by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission 1987). In summary, politically, it was an evolution from the counter-political culture of the 1970s to a political culture of dialogue, collaboration, and specialization, and economically, it was the “integration of environment and economy” (green growth)2 Ecological modernization has been the subject of a vast debate, which can be reviewed in Glynn et al. (2017). . Although this “joining” was fraught with contradictions and tensions from both economic and environmental thought, to this day, it has become a UN terminology, it has become the “environment and development” cause in the mainstream, including governments and businesses.
About 10 years ago, the degrowth theory began to be in the limelight again, as the Internet revolution of the 1990s and other factors led to the birth of giant platform companies such as GAFA and the rapid expansion of economic globalization and financial capitalism, while inequality, fragmentation, the fall of the middle class, youth unemployment, and poverty spread throughout society. Dissatisfaction with this unfair social structure erupted with the economic downturn precipitated by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 leading to the subsequent “Occupy Wall Street” and “We are the 99%” movements involving the younger generation, including the Generation Left. 2008 also saw the first International Conference on Degrowth held in Paris. The degrowth theory has been spreading, reexamining from the bottom up the political, economic, industrial, financial, and monetary systems, as well as the nature of consumer society and labor, and aiming for true sustainability of the humanity, including the environment, which is the foundation of our existence.
Since then, a global grassroots movement against the climate crisis, such as Fridays for Future (FFF) by Generation Z and others inspired by the direct actions of Greta Thunberg, has also gained momentum, and many also overlap with the supporters of degrowth theory.
3. Discussion points on energy
For the current state of capitalism, in which unlimited growth is implicitly assumed, the fundamental questions from the degrowth theory are worth taking on board. However, when we look at the criticisms that the degrowth theory poses with regard to energy and the climate crisis, we see several logical leaps and confusions. In particular, we would like to attempt to untangle the fact that a major shift in human history has begun in recent years in energy and mobility, which seems to be the cause of the confusion with the criticism of green growth theory from the perspective of degrowth theory.
Misconceptions about the Great Energy Transformation
Currently, in addition to the “technology disruption” of energy through solar and wind power generation and storage batteries, the “technology disruption” of mobility through the electrification of automobiles and autonomous driving has begun. However, the degrowth theory is critical of these changes as “capitalist growth”. The criticism is that “absolute decoupling” to reduce emissions by promoting solar power generation while continuing economic growth is not possible3Saito, Kohei (2020) pp. 66-78. .
This is based on confusion with capitalist growth, lack of understanding of the technology disruption in energy, and skepticism about decoupling. The rapid expansion of solar and wind power in recent years has been founded on the current capitalist system, but capitalism is not necessarily the driving force behind diffusion. The development of wind as an alternative energy source to oil in the 1970s, the challenge from the movement to phase out nuclear power, and the local energy independence efforts that began in Denmark are evidence of this. In terms of promotion policies, various attempts have been made by predecessors, such as the grid-connection attempts in Denmark in the 1970s, the positioning of wind power generation as an independent power producer (IPP) under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) in the United States, tax breaks for wind power investment in California, and the feed-in tariff system originated in the PURPA law and the three-party agreement in Denmark. The PURPA Act and the Danish three-party agreement are just a few examples of the many attempts that have been made. The “learning effect of technology and policy” that has led to the expansion of solar and wind power generation through the accumulation of diverse and multi-layered policy innovations and technological improvements around the world has brought about a virtuous cycle of market expansion, technological improvements, and cost reductions that has continued to this day. In a manner of speaking, it can be said that this is an accumulation of human curiosity, wisdom, and skill.
Thus, without fully understanding the history and background of the technology disruption in energy caused by solar power and wind power, which have leaped to the forefront of the energy transition over the past decade or so and are expanding at an even faster pace, the degrowth theory confuses and simplistically denies the idea of capitalist growth. Moreover, if the rapid expansion of solar and wind power generation is blocked according to this argument, it will result in a self-contradiction that will delay the response to the climate crisis.
Confusion with Ecomodernism
Some critics from the degrowth movement see the great energy and mobility transformation as “eco-modernism”4 Saito, Kohei (2020) pp. 210.. Ecomodernism has much in common with mainstream green growth in that it advocates decoupling to solve climate change with technology and growth, but it is reluctant or negative about renewable energy and fully supports nuclear power5 The environmental philosophy condensed in the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” proposed in 2014 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-chairs of the U.S. Breakthrough Institute. . They define themselves as “modern and smart environmentalists,” while dismissing the traditional environmental movement critical of nuclear power as “old school”. It is positioned as the opposite of degrowth theory, across from mainstream green growth, and overlaps with right-wing accelerationism.
Even if the nuclear power supported by ecomodernists and Bill Gates and others were to be built to cope with the climate crisis, the scale and speed of nuclear power plants are not even close to those of solar and wind power, as more than 400 existing plants are about to be decommissioned, and new construction is being delayed after another due to soaring costs and delays. This is not modern ecology, but rather unrealistic, irrational, pre-modern, and unecological.
An idea similar to but opposite to ecomodernism is Bastani, a leftist accelerationist who advocates unlimited expansion of solar (Bastani 2019). Bastani has been criticized by degrowth theorists for confusing it with ecomodernism. Criticizing Bastani for being too techno-optimistic is not an argument against the technology disruption in energy and mobility that are occurring in reality and must be precisely separated.
Decoupling and energy balance ratios
The central idea of green growth is decoupling, where energy consumption, material consumption, and environmental impacts can be decoupled and lowered relative to economic growth. The degrowth theory argues that this decoupling is difficult to achieve and that degrowth is necessary as the most important argument (Saito 2020, EEB 2019).
In recent years, however, there has been some counter-evidence that, at least with regard to energy, decoupling of both energy and resources is possible if evaluated not as an extension of existing fossil fuels but as a completely new system consisting of distributed energy such as solar, wind, and storage batteries (Wang 2022, Hausfather 2021, Figure 2). Although the decoupling debate requires further research and verification, the rapid expansion of solar and wind power, which only began a decade ago, is likely to accelerate in the future, and more and more empirical data on absolute decoupling will be available.
Figure 2: Decoupling of consumption-side emissions and GDP (2005-2019) | Source: Hausfather (2021)
A related degrowth argument is the energy balance ratio (EROI, EROEI or EPBT)6 Indicators conceptualized in the 1980s, led by Professor Charles A. S. Hall. , a measure of how many times (or how many years) one unit of energy input can be recovered, and degrowth theorists argue that the EROI of solar and wind power is inferior to that of oil and fossil fuels, and therefore the transition to solar energy will inevitably lead to economic constraints and economic stagnation 7 Saito, p.305, states that “Solar EROI is 2.5-3.5” and EEB, p.305, states that “Renewable energy EROI is 20 but it lowers the overall energy EROI to 3-5.” . In contrast, while the EROI of fossil fuels is declining, the EROI of renewable energy is already higher given the rapid technological evolution and cost declines in recent years (Brockway 2021). Furthermore, we see counterarguments such as inexhaustible solar energy is not constrained by EROI (White 2019). The effectiveness of EROI as an indicator is questionable because it looks at primary energy and not effective (final) energy, it ignores exergy differences, it requires data collection throughout the supply chain, making accurate evaluation difficult, and the results vary by an order of magnitude from evaluation to evaluation (Deign 2021). In recent years, many institutions have standardized on a simpler indicator, “energy payback time” (EPBT), which shows a good EPBT of about 1 year for PV (Fraunhofer 2022).
Political and temporal feasibilities
To limit the increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, climate science calls for a global greenhouse gas reduction of at least 50% by 2030.
In contrast, changing the existing energy, industrial, and social structures that have caused the climate crisis to a degrowth political and economic policy in a time frame of only less than 10 years does not seem feasible given the political situation of countries around the world and the reality of international politics. Furthermore, even assuming that countries and the world as a whole could achieve a transition to a steady-state or negative-growth economy, this would not lead directly to decarbonization, such as the abolition of coal-fired power generation or the de-fossilization of industry. This is because, as is clear from Japan’s persistence with coal and nuclear power even in a low-growth, near-steady-state economy, the realization of an energy transition requires a different kind of politics and policy than a shift to a political and economic system of degrowth.
On the other hand, solar and wind power, which together accounted for just under 2% of global electricity supply in 2010, will exceed 10% in 2021 8 Wind 1.6% (181 GW) and solar 0.2% (40 GW) in 2010, 6.4% (810 GW) and 4.0% (945 GW) in 2021 (BP statistics, REN21).. EVs will also exceed 8% of global sales in 2021, and it can be observed that both have entered a stage of technology disruption or an initial rapid expansion called the “S-curve of technology diffusion.” Looking at the energy scenarios presented by various organizations including the IPCC AR6, it is clear that accelerating this expansion of solar and wind power will be the most important key to achieving the 1.5℃ target in the future. In order to discuss the response to the climate crisis in the degrowth argument, it is necessary to make the connection with this great energy transition.
4. Underestimated technology disruption
Underestimation of solar and wind power
With regard to the ongoing great energy and mobility transition (technology disruption), there has been criticism that not only the degrowth theory, but even the IPCC, which is dominated by green growth, has not adequately captured it, although the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) eight years ago gave little credit to the role of solar and wind power (Figure 3). The current AR6 mentions the declining costs of solar, wind, and storage batteries, stating that “future energy transitions may occur more quickly than in the past.” Nevertheless, even the Sustainable Scenario (SSP1), which achieves the 1.5℃ target, has a modest projection of 1.5 to 2.7 times the 2019 level of non-biomass renewable energy in 2030.
Figure 3: Underestimation of renewable energy in IPCC AR5｜Source: Dorr (2022)
Dorr points out that the reason for this is that the “conventional-thinking energy experts” who make up the majority of the IPCC are caught in the same preconceived notions that have historically led the International Energy Agency (IEA) to underestimate the expansion of solar and wind power (filter bubble), combined with the “aversion to technology optimism” that runs through the environmental community, including degrowth theorists and the IPCC. These may be contributing to the underestimation of the energy transformation that is actually taking place (Dorr 2022).
While easy technological optimism must be avoided, the great energy transition is a world-historical reality, and the effects of its technology disruption could affect industry and society at large. To dismiss this as easy technological optimism is to ignore the real and potential social risks, not only in responding to the climate crisis, but also in aiming for a just transition.
Mobility transformation in the “elephant in the room”
The great mobility transformation, including the shift to EVs and autonomous driving, has taken on a more complex aspect: EVs have begun to grow at an accelerating pace over the past two to three years, lagging behind the shift to renewable energy for electricity, but exponential expansion and technology disruption is about to begin, led by Europe and China, which will account for well over 10% of new car sales in 2021. A close-up look reveals that Tesla leads the way in terms of the speed of technological innovation and market expansion, with old and new companies following in its footsteps, and that accelerated technology disruption through self-driving and ride-sharing is about to proceed in parallel with the global shift to EVs (Iida 2022).
However, degrowth theorists, as well as the mainstream environmental community, including the IPCC, have failed to capture this ongoing disruptive shift in mobility, as the IPCC AR6 scenarios also observe and model the decarbonization of mobility on a macro scale, with a slow and modest transition to EVs and a shift to hydrogen and mix with biofuels.
The environmental community is looking at the macro transition to EVs and other decarbonized fuels from a decarbonization perspective, and self-driving and ride-sharing are not on the horizon, perhaps because they seem unrelated to decarbonization 9 Not only the IPCC, but also environmental NGOs Greenpeace Japan (2021) and Climate Group (2022) do not deal with autonomous driving and ride-sharing. . Self-driving and ride-sharing, and even individual company Tesla, are trends in the tech and auto industries and only industry media and investors are paying attention to them. It is a situation where people are commenting on the “elephant in the room” that is too big to see, although it is close at hand.
In contrast, the argument that the integration of EV, autonomous driving, and ride-sharing will accelerate technology disruption in mobility (Arbib 2017) is compelling when looking at the real-life trends of technological development and market deployment that are occurring.
Technology disruption in mobility have the impact of fundamentally changing not only climate and energy, but also the economy, industry, and society. It is precisely in the field of mobility, which is about to face such radical change, that we need to look beyond the perspective of decarbonization and explore how a “just transition” can be achieved from multiple perspectives: environmental, economic, and social.
5. Importance of a low-energy society
The IPCC AR6 addressed “low energy society” for the first time along with degrowth, stepping into the demand side. It is important to look at energy not from the resource or supply side, but from the demand side. Before making the leap to degrowth, we should pursue a low-energy society based on energy efficiency and sufficiency.
We do not use energy for the purpose of “using energy”. The direct purpose is the convenience (energy services) we derive from using energy, such as brightness, mobility, a warm and comfortable room, a cool space (refrigerator), drying clothes, and so on. These energy services and various other means enable us to live and work, and as a set of these services, society, the economy, and politics are established.
These energy services can be made many times, dozens, or hundreds of times more efficient, as in the conversion to LEDs, super-insulated homes, drying clothes with sun and wind, and bicycle use. The energy and resources to satisfy the endless desire and unlimited growth of our planet will be more than the earth can provide, but if we focus on the well-being of each individual and the society as a whole, it is enough to efficiently meet the energy services, and this can be done with solar energy. If the best technologies can achieve a fourfold increase in energy efficiency, the share of U.S. electricity from renewables in 2020 will rise from 20.6% to 82% (Lovins 2022). Globally, there is also a low-energy scenario in which demand shrinks by 40% with an emphasis on efficiency improvements (Grübler 2018).
Danish energy engineer and philosopher Dr. Joan Nørgård has been advocating a “low energy society,” first addressed by the IPCC AR6, for 40 years already (Nørgård 1980). By engineering all aspects of energy use that make up life and society, he demonstrated that it is possible to create a sufficiently prosperous and fulfilling society while reducing energy use. Since then, Denmark has been moving, albeit inadequately, toward an energy society in line with his recommendations. The argument that the decoupling of economic indicators (GDP) and carbon is impossible, on which the degrowth argument is based, overlooks energy efficiency and energy services from the demand side. Before making the leap to degrowth in response to the climate crisis, looking at energy services and sufficiency from this demand-side perspective may be the key to closing the gap between green growth and the rest of the world.
6. Towards solar energy civilization
Degrowth theory is an important inquiry, both from the physical big-picture perspective that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, and as an ideology and movement that addresses various social issues such as inequality and poverty brought about by the infinite growth economy that is implicit in today’s neoliberal capitalism. It has the potential to rethink and update basic concepts such as “sustainable development” and ecological modernization since the 1980s.
However, the degrowth theory criticizes the great energy and mobility transformation, which has begun as a world-historical reality, by confusing it with the growth economy and technological accelerationism. The lack of a clear message of a shift to a solar-energy civilization may also detract from our understanding of degrowth theory itself. All life, including human life, has been nurtured by solar energy. Politics, economics, and society are ultimately subject to the laws of physics. The basic premise should be that the transition from a fossil fuel civilization since the Industrial Revolution to an inexhaustible and enduring solar energy civilization is a necessary condition for a sustainable society.
- Tetsunari Iida (2022) “Tesla Shock,” Sekai, Iwanami Shoten (in Japanese 「テスラ・ショック」『世界』).
- Kohei Saito (2020), “Capitalism in Anthropocene'”, Shueisha (in Japanese『人新世の「資本論」』).
- Greenpeace Japan (2021) “Macroeconomic and Environmental Impacts of the Decarbonization of Japanese Passenger Cars” (in Japanese 『日本の乗用車の脱炭素化によるマクロ経済および環境への影響』).
- Arbib, J. & Seba, T. (2017) “Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030”, RethinkX
- Bastani, A (2019) Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Verso Books.
- Brockway, P. E., et.al. (2019) “Estimation of global final-stage energy-return-on-investment for fossil fuels with comparison to renewable energy sources”, Nature Energy, 4 (3), pp. 612–621.
- Climate Group (2022) “Japan in a World Moving Toward Zero-Emission Vehicles” ( in Japanese『ゼロエミッション車に向かう世界の中の日本』)．
- Deign, J. (2021) “Examining the Limits of ‘Energy Return on Investment’”, Greentech Media.
- Dorr, A. (2022) “The UN climate panel still doesn’t understand technology – and it matters”, RethinkX.
- Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (2022) Photovoltaics Report.
- Glynn, P. J. et al. (2017) “Chapter 1: Ecological modernization: theory and the policy process”, Business, Organized Labour and Climate Policy, Monograph Book.
- Grübler, A.,et al. (2018) “A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies,” Nature Energy, 3, pp.515–527.
- Hausfather, Z. (2021) Absolute Decoupling of Economic Growth and Emissions in 32 Countries, The Breakthrough Institute.
- IPCC (2022) AR6 WG III.
- Lovins, A. B. (2022) “US nuclear power: Status, prospects, and climate implications”, The Electricity Journal, 35 (4).
- Meadows, D.H., et al. (1972) The Limits to Growth, Club of Rome.
- Nørgård, J. and Christensen,B. (1980) Energihusholdning, Husholdning, Holdning.
- The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) (2019) Decoupling debunked.
- WNISR (2021) The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021.
- Wang,Q. et al. (2022) “The impact of renewable energy on decoupling economic growth from ecological footprint”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 354.
- White, E. (2019) “The Changing Meaning of Energy Return on Investment and the Implications for the Prospects of Post-fossil Civilization” One Earth 1.
- 1Degrowth is discussed in Chapters 1, 3, 5, and 17 of IPCC AR6 WGIII (Apr. 5th, 2022).
- 2Ecological modernization has been the subject of a vast debate, which can be reviewed in Glynn et al. (2017).
- 3Saito, Kohei (2020) pp. 66-78.
- 4Saito, Kohei (2020) pp. 210.
- 5The environmental philosophy condensed in the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” proposed in 2014 by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-chairs of the U.S. Breakthrough Institute.
- 6Indicators conceptualized in the 1980s, led by Professor Charles A. S. Hall.
- 7Saito, p.305, states that “Solar EROI is 2.5-3.5” and EEB, p.305, states that “Renewable energy EROI is 20 but it lowers the overall energy EROI to 3-5.”
- 8Wind 1.6% (181 GW) and solar 0.2% (40 GW) in 2010, 6.4% (810 GW) and 4.0% (945 GW) in 2021 (BP statistics, REN21).
- 9Not only the IPCC, but also environmental NGOs Greenpeace Japan (2021) and Climate Group (2022) do not deal with autonomous driving and ride-sharing.