Rethinking the World: Conservation and Sustainability Without Economic Growth

Most international policies for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development do not foresee scenarios whereby these goals are achieved without the need for economic growth, which actually undermines environmental protection and sustainability, a new study finds.

The link between economic growth and environmental degradation is increasingly supported by evidence. In a new paper1 published this week in Conservation Letters, a group of international scientists went beyond simply reviewing such evidence, and criticised international conservation and sustainability policies for failing to envision and promote a world that does not depend on constant economic growth.

Expanding economies and increasing gross domestic product (GDP) are linked to the exacerbation of today’s main environmental issues, including climate change, habitat loss and biodiversity loss. For 189 countries, a 1% increase in GDP was associated with a 0.5-0.8% rise in CO2 emissions, during the 1961-2018 period. Per capita consumption similarly increases with GDP, meaning that as countries (and their people) get wealthier they seem to develop less sustainable lifestyles. For instance, the positive trend between per capita meat consumption and GDP means that as countries improve their economy, agricultural productivity intensifies at the price of environmental destruction. Livestock production is a main cause of climate change and deforestation, while monoculture and agrochemicals are responsible for much of the habitat degradation that occurred in the last century and which continues to date.

How economic growth contributes to biodiversity loss. Economic growth increases resource use and trade, which in turn impact biodiversity via various mechanisms reviewed in the text (climate change, land-use change, and invasive species). Figure credits: 1

As economies grow and countries get wealthier, transport routes and urbanisation also expand, threatening biodiversity through habitat fragmentation and different types of pollution (e.g., water, air, sound, light). The introduction of alien/invasive species, which is a significant cause of extinction for plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals is also expected to spike through greater international trade and the expansion of transport routes.

While in theory resource use could become more efficient over time, and the links between economic growth and environmental degradation could accordingly decouple, this is unlikely to happen, argue the authors of the study. They build such assumption on the above premises, and thus on the fact that to date the economies with higher GDP are also the ones to consume more raw materials and energy and to have the greatest environmental footprint.

Through reviewing the main international policy documents for sustainable development and biodiversity conservation, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity, the authors highlight that economic growth is often emphasised, whether implicitly or explicitly, as a main way to alleviate poverty, promote equality and achieve prosperity, whilst its consequences for nature conservation are often overlooked or only vaguely mentioned.

Considering the ample evidence pointing to how economic growth negatively affects biodiversity, the authors argue that the current policies actually stand in the way of biodiversity conservation. Such policies could be improved by adopting an economic perspective which prioritises both environmental protection and human wellbeing while leaving behind the idea of having to increase the GDP at any cost.

“[G]lobal biodiversity and sustainability policies generally advocate economic growth and have ambiguous positions regarding its effects on biodiversity. This reflects the widespread assumption that growth is needed to secure prosperity, despite increasing evidence that, under certain conditions, high levels of social well-being may be achievable without—or beyond—growth”, the authors explain.

Up to now, all shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) consider positive economic growth rates, and no pathway is included whereby high levels of biodiversity conservation can be achieved with low or negative economic growth. To explore this opportunity space (wider circle in Y axis), we propose to add a new SSP called “beyond economic growth”. Figure credits: 1

Developing the economy qualitatively rather than quantitatively (i.e., financially) would mean embracing tools and ideas such as “green taxes” (e.g., carbon and gasoline taxes), reforms to shift social perception away from finding satisfaction in material consumption to finding it in human relationships and community building, compact urban planning, and small-scale farming with low environmental impact.

While the authors recognise that these strategies are thought from a western perspective, they stress that similar alternatives also exist for the socio-cultural and political contexts of the Global South: “[these ideas have their] origins in the Global North, where strategies for alternative economies thrive on an intellectual and material history that is far from that of the Global South. Yet analogous values – such as subsistence-living, balance between all living beings, and reciprocity – favour a joint exploration of alliances”.

The authors conclude encouraging the environmental and sustainability policies of the next decade to pick up such qualitative view of the global economy for a more equal, sustainable and biodiverse planet. Next year, scientists, practitioners and policymakers from across the world will meet to discuss strategic plans for the conservation and sustainability policies of the next decade, presenting unmissable opportunities to develop what for now are mostly ideas into something more concrete.

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References

  1. Otero, I, Farrell, KN, Pueyo, S, et al., 2020. Biodiversity policy beyond economic growth. Conservation Letters. e12713. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12713

Cover image credits: Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

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