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Economic Growth and Environmental Limits

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2019

[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered economic growth and environmental limits.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate economic growth and environmental limits. It is, of course, a huge subject, covering why and how our current economic model, which puts GDP growth above everything else, must change fundamentally, fast. I will focus on the environmental imperatives for that, especially the climate and biodiversity crises, and set out practical steps that I hope the Treasury will adopt.

It is crucial to note, however, before going into the environmental detail, that the Treasury’s obsession with GDP growth is also undermining social and economic progress for the vast majority of UK citizens. GDP is an incredibly poor metric for measuring wellbeing or social cohesion. For example, people becoming unhealthy can actually have a positive effect overall on GDP, as revenue from associated healthcare boosts growth. Similarly, the extraction of oil and gas pushes GDP up, while pushing us closer to the precipice of climate breakdown.

I, of course, acknowledge that Government Departments have goals other than economic output. The Office for National Statistics in particular is doing some important work on wellbeing statistics as part of their “Beyond GDP” programme. There is also the ONS/Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs project that seeks to incorporate UK natural capital into the UK environmental accounts by 2020. All of that is welcome, but it is all at the margins. The ONS website is unequivocal about the priority. It says quite clearly:

“Gross domestic product (GDP) growth is the main indicator of economic performance.”

GDP therefore still trumps everything, remaining the primary objective across Government, especially for the Treasury.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the debate, and on her hard work in this House on the environment and climate change. Although I certainly like to check on GDP and other financial aims, does she agree that the measure of success cannot be GDP alone? It must equally be based on the happiness and health of our constituents.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and kind words. As he says, the purpose of Government should surely be to promote happiness and health, yet we have a perverse obsession with GDP growth, which can often go up even when happiness and health are going down. That obsession must end if we are to secure a safe space for humanity, and if we are to live within environmental limits, or planetary boundaries, to use an alternative term.

I will not be surprised if the Minister takes issue with me on that, arguing that the UK has embraced so-called green growth, perhaps citing the clean growth strategy. Leaving aside the fact that there is nothing clean or green about the Government’s support for rampant airport expansion, road building or fossil fuel subsidies, the essential point is that even so-called green growth rests on the assumption that economic growth can be decoupled from environmental harm fully and fast enough. I will make the case this afternoon that that is a false assumption.

Just yesterday, a new report from the European Environmental Bureau exploded the myth of absolute decoupling. The study looked at a range of factors—materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases and so on—and found that there is no empirical evidence for an absolute, permanent, global, substantial or sufficiently rapid decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures, either now or in the future. In other words, it is time to move from efficiency to sufficiency. As the report concludes,

“Although decoupling is useful and necessary, and has occurred at certain times and places, ‘green growth’ cannot reduce resource use on anywhere near the scale required to deal with global environmental breakdown and to keep global warming below the target of 1.5°C”.

The transgression of environmental limits has dangerous consequences for all humanity. That was pushed into the spotlight by the UN global assessment of nature—the so-called Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. If ever there was a mouthful that was designed to make it hard to know what anyone was talking about, that is it; we should call it a report on nature.

Regardless, it found that 75% of all land and almost half of all marine and water ecosystems have been seriously altered by human activity. It found that 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. That is a horrendous number—significantly greater than at any other time in human history—and poses a severe and direct threat to not only those species but human wellbeing in all regions of the world, especially those least responsible for the damage that is causing it.

The report identifies the growth of the global economy, and specifically the growth of material consumption in affluent nations, as one of the major driving forces behind those trends. It is unambiguous about the need to move away from endless consumption and GDP as a key measure of economic success, stating that we must steer

“away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth”


“shift beyond standard economic indicators such as gross domestic product”.

I am keen to emphasise that, although Greens have long been leading the political debate on the environmental and social case for ditching GDP growth as a measure of progress, that argument is finally moving into the mainstream. Cross-party collaboration is incredibly important too, and I am delighted that 20 MPs have signed my early-day motion on the report from the intergovernmental panel. My early-day motion calls on the Government to

“urgently show global leadership in developing and advocating alternatives to GDP and in the transition to economies that, rather than being divisive and degenerative by default, are distributive and regenerative by design.”

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and making many good points. I agree that we need to move beyond GDP. Is she aware that work has already been done on alternative methods of measurement? For instance, the University of Leeds, through the Sustainability Research Institute, has a consumption-based emissions model that would give us an alternative to GDP. We could calculate everything based on emissions, including at source, as well as those used in the UK or other developed countries. Should we not move to that sort of model, rather than a GDP-based model?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The work going on at the University of Leeds is incredibly exciting. It demonstrates that there is a lot of work going on, both in this country and internationally, into researching what alternative indicators might look like. I think what is lacking is a real commitment to move them into the mainstream. In the regular updates on the radio or in the Financial Times, when we hear about GDP growth and how we should be very happy that it has gone up, we could look at those indicators, which might well show that our wellbeing is being severely undermined by environmental damage.

Turning to the climate emergency, the primacy of GDP growth as the overarching priority for the economy is the elephant in the room. To quote Greta Thunberg,

“Our house is on fire”,

and the GDP growth obsession is the obstacle blocking the door to the emergency exit. In April, Greta visited Parliament and spoke about why she and millions of other young people were missing school to strike for the climate. She said very clearly that the way that we measure progress is absurd and archaic:

“People always tell me and the other millions of school strikers that we should be proud of ourselves for what we have accomplished. But the only thing that we need to look at is the emission curve. And I’m sorry, but it’s still rising. That curve is the only thing we should look at…We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases.”

That call to rewrite the economic rulebook is echoed by many others in the climate justice network, including many in the grassroots movements for a green new deal in the UK and the US, and a vastly growing number of academics and economists. The reaction to a tweet by the London Mayor, Sadiq Kahn, one week into the Extinction Rebellion protests was interesting; it illustrates that climate justice is inextricably linked to the transformation of the economic system. To be fair, I am sure he did it without thinking it through that much, but he tweeted:

“My message to all the climate change protestors today is clear: let London return to business as usual.”

That tweet went down so terribly because the new climate justice movement understands that business as usual is killing the planet and destroying our children’s future. The litmus test for adequate climate action is no longer what is considered politically feasible within the current system; it is whether we are transforming the economic system to fit with what is scientifically necessary to keep within 1.5° of global heating, and to reverse the unravelling of the Earth’s life support systems before our eyes.

I have immense sympathy with what the hon. Lady is saying, and I agree. She talked about political feasibility. All the proposals and politics that she is suggesting are difficult to achieve in an environment of gross inequality. Would it not be easier if we addressed equality, to make all these things more acceptable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise intervention. Certainly, if we are not going to make the economy bigger by growing it and growing it—we simply cannot, within environmental limits—arguments about redistribution become absolutely central to the whole debate. Everything that I am saying is about social justice and environmental justice being inextricably linked. They must be, because we have to tackle them together. Although it is quite hard to find opportunities when the environmental data is so grim, there is an opportunity to get our social systems and inclusiveness right, and to get our inequality sorted, at the same time as taking serious steps towards making the way we organise our economy genuinely sustainable.

On climate, as on biodiversity, I believe strongly that we must look at the science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report, entitled “Global Warming of 1.5 ºC”, says that we need

“rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change across all aspects of society”.

We have barely a decade to cut global emissions by half. As the co-chair of an IPCC working group put it,

“The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

The Treasury is doing a very good impression of ignoring the urgency of taking action. The Government boast about emission cuts and about legislating for a net zero emission goal to be reached in three decades’ time. However, the Committee on Climate Change said in its new report, which was published this morning, that the next 18 months are make or break, especially as the UK

“is lagging far behind what is needed, even to meet previous, less stringent, emissions targets.”

The UK’s carbon reduction statistics ignore consumption-based emissions. Our exported emissions are one factor that explains why global emissions continue to rise, and why we are still heading for a devastating 3° of warming, even if countries deliver on their Paris pledges.

This is all to say that the pursuit of economic growth is devouring our efforts to decarbonise. I will quote the work of Jason Hickel, a leading environmental economist at Goldsmiths. He has explained the situation by examining the IPCC’s trajectories on reaching net zero by mid-century. The IPCC is telling us that we have until 2050 to get to net zero, but the global economy is set to nearly triple in size during the same period, which means three times more production and consumption. It is hard enough to decarbonise the current economy in such a short time span. The idea that we will be able to do it three times over is, frankly, for the birds. However heroic our assumptions about the potential for decoupling, there is no evidence that it can be completed quickly enough in the timeframe that we have.

There is some hope, because the IPCC report contains one lifeline scenario that does not rely on speculative and harmful negative emissions technologies to keep global heating under 1.5°. That scenario is our emergency exit from climate breakdown. So what does it look like? Fundamentally, it is about scaling down material consumption by 20% globally, with rich countries such as the UK leading the way. As yesterday’s European Environmental Bureau report concluded,

“Policy-makers have to acknowledge the fact that addressing”

the climate and biodiversity crises

“may require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries.”

I should add, “among the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries,” because I take the point made by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins); equality and justice needs to be at the heart of this process.

As I say, the ONS work on wellbeing indicators beyond GDP and on natural capital is important and welcome, but it is clearly not the priority. It is not a primary consideration in Treasury decision making. Nor is the wellbeing work integrated with environmental considerations. Will the Minister commit to ensuring the ONS has the resources and the direction required to integrate environmental limits into its “Beyond GDP” work, including, as a priority, consumption-based carbon emissions? While I am making requests of the Minister, can he tell us what has happened to the latest release of those “Beyond GDP” statistics? If they are quarterly, as the ONS website states, the latest were due a couple of months ago, back in May.

I turn to the positive case for ousting GDP as a measure of progress, and to some of the alternatives that we could adopt. There is an extensive and expanding evidence base to suggest that ousting GDP as a measure of progress is essential to achieve both environmental and social justice. Transitioning away from the growth dogma is not about hurting people’s welfare—quite the opposite. It is about placing wellbeing centre stage, reducing inequalities, cutting out waste and inefficiencies, and prioritising quality of life over quantity of things.

There is a chorus of experts—academics, economists and campaigners—proposing concrete, credible alternatives to get us out of the GDP gulag. Many of them are members of the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance. I will briefly give four examples. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) will be very happy, because the first example I will give is from the University of Leeds, where researchers are exploring a

“good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

This shows that the UK and other wealthy nations are well past the tipping point at which

“using even more resources adds almost nothing to human well-being.”

The researchers explain that this means countries such as the UK could

“substantially reduce the amount of carbon emitted or materials consumed with no loss of well-being.”

A second example comes in the shape of a doughnut. In her book, “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”, Kat Raworth sets out to replace the dominant image of the economy as a closed, self-generating loop with a picture of the economy that shows energy flowing in from the sun, and waste and heat flowing out. Her doughnut image requires us to recognise that all economic activity is embedded in the Earth’s living systems and in society. Instead of maximising GDP, we need to change our goals to meet

“the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet.”

Crucially, this model combines environmental limits with social factors such as housing, equity, political voice, education and income. The inner boundary of the doughnut is the social floor, below which wellbeing suffers. The outer boundary is an ecological ceiling, beyond which we overshoot the Earth’s support systems. The doughnut’s fundamental point, which the Treasury seems to have not yet grasped, is that the current economic system is failing on both human wellbeing and environmental health grounds.

A third example is a call from 238 academics for the EU and member states to plan for a post-growth future, in which human and ecological wellbeing are prioritised over GDP. They say:

“Growth is…becoming harder to achieve due to declining productivity gains, market saturation and ecological degradation. If current trends continue, there may be no growth at all in Europe within a decade. Right now the response is to try to fuel growth by issuing more debt, shredding environmental regulations, extending working hours, and cutting social protections. This aggressive pursuit of growth at all costs divides society, creates economic instability, and undermines democracy.”

The academics end by offering some measured and moderate practical next steps, including constituting

“a special commission on Post-Growth Futures”

in order to

“actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.”

I would love to see citizens’ assemblies play a major part in that.

Secondly, the academics suggest prioritising alternative indicators over GDP in all economic decision making. Thirdly, they propose establishing a Ministry for economic transition, to drive the shift to a new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing, and away from one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.

The fourth and final example is New Zealand, where the Treasury has conducted the world’s first wellbeing budget. Finance Minister Grant Robinson explained that GDP growth was simply not translating into higher standards or better opportunities. Instead, the wellbeing budget looks at spending on the basis of a project’s contribution to the wellbeing of the population, as measured through four dimensions: human capital, social capital, natural capital, and financial and physical capital. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Gus O’Donnell, recently launched a report by the all-party parliamentary group on wellbeing economics that makes a similar case for wellbeing to replace growth as the main aim of UK spending in the forthcoming spending review. Those are just some examples.

The hon. Lady is giving a fantastic speech. She has mentioned the views of four different people on the limits of using GDP, what it is, what good it does in our economy, and what good growth does. Some 51 years ago, Robert F. Kennedy—hardly an economic radical; he was a Democrat—gave a speech on the limits of GDP. I add that because he is someone that I and many people across the political divide can respect. He was well ahead of the curve on this issue.

The hon. Gentleman is a very good friend and colleague, but he has just taken my final point; I was building up to that speech from Bobby Kennedy. I forgive him, because he is a good colleague and it was very good point.

I give a shout out to the all-party parliamentary group on economic wellbeing and the APPG on limits to growth, of which I am a co-chair, and which works closely with the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity under the leadership of Professor Tim Jackson, who does good work in this area.

I want to leave time for the Minister to respond, so I will conclude. The climate and biodiversity crisis means that urgency is becoming emergency, in terms of getting economic transformation going. I will skip most of my lovely Bobby Kennedy quote, but his words ring as true today as they ever did, so I will keep the last bit. He said that GDP

“measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

I have three requests of the Treasury to which I hope the Minister will respond. First, will he put rocket boosters behind the ONS “Beyond GDP” work, ensure that the environment is fully integrated alongside social factors, and commit to adopting those indicators and using them alongside or, even better, instead of GDP growth? I would even let him use them alongside GDP growth, as long as that were done regularly, so that we could see those indicators as a key measure of the nation’s progress.

Secondly, from this year on, will the Minister publish consumption-based carbon emissions, material throughput and wellbeing statistics alongside quarterly GDP figures? Thirdly, will he meet me and some of the leading economists, academics and practitioners working on this issue, to inform the forthcoming spending review?

As Kenneth Boulding said more than 50 years ago,

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Thankfully, we now have a new generation of environmentally literate economists, and it is time that we listened to what they have to say.

I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for tabling this debate and other hon. Members who intervened or who came to listen to and support her. I am always partial to a good Robert Kennedy quote, so I am sorry to see that the hon. Lady’s thunder was stolen at the end of her speech, but I enjoyed it none the less.

As the hon. Lady eloquently set out, it is now more important than ever that the Government and institutions such as the Treasury, which is at the heart of this debate, confront head on the question of how we continue to grow the economy while protecting our environment and tackling climate change with all the vigour and urgency that she and others would like. I believe that the two can and will be done together, and can be mutually beneficial.

The UK is a world leader in this area, but I appreciate that many people—me included—would like us to go further. Between 1990 and 2016, the UK reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 42% while growing the economy by more than two thirds, demonstrating that environmental action need not come at the cost of economic prosperity.

The Government are determined to continue to build concern for the environment into our economic model. In a moment, I will explain some of the workstreams that we have already undertaken and where we could go further. We want to ensure that environmental policies are well considered and that the Treasury as an organisation is leading them, as I believe it is. The hon. Lady argued that it is time fundamentally to change economic models if we want to address the climate emergency. She questioned in particular whether GDP is a sensible measure of our economic wellbeing, so I will begin by addressing that.

GDP remains one of the most important economic indicators, but it is by no means the only one that is of concern to us or which is used by other major economies around the world. It is closely correlated with employment, incomes and tax receipts, which makes it perhaps the most useful indicator currently available to us. It is used by the Government, the Treasury, and the Bank of England to set economic policy and manage the public finances and, as the system of national accounts framework is set at UN level, GDP is easily comparable across countries and time periods, both historically and in the future. It is important that any changes in the economic modelling that we use are made internationally, and the UK needs to show leadership on that.

The Government recognise, however, that GDP undoubtedly has its limitations and should not be seen as an all-encompassing measure of welfare and wellbeing, and we entirely accept that it was never designed to be. Former Chancellor George Osborne commissioned Sir Charles Bean to undertake an independent review of economic statistics. The review acknowledged some of those limitations, such as the challenge of capturing activities where no market transaction takes place, the challenge posed to GDP and to some of our existing modelling by technology, transforming the way that we measure welling and productivity and, as the hon. Lady mentioned, the fact that GDP estimates make no allowance for the depletion of natural resources,

The Government fully supported the recommendations of the Bean review, which we commissioned, and we have provided the ONS with an additional £25 million to help improve UK economic statistics and implement the Bean review. That was the “Beyond GDP” initiative that the hon. Lady mentioned, which aims to address the limitations of GDP by developing a broader measure of welfare and activity. In response to the hon. Lady’s question about the publication of statistics, the ONS is an independent organisation, so we do not control it in that respect, but I am happy to pass on her comments and ask the ONS to respond.

In the time left, I will briefly mention a number of other steps that the Government have taken. The Treasury’s Green Book, our guidance on the appraisal and evaluation of infrastructure and other investments, is essential to a number of decisions that are made by the Government. In 2018, we refreshed the Green Book to include additional environmental values, such as greenhouse gases, air quality and noise pollution. We also included a social cost-benefit analysis, which I hope is making a significant difference. It will be very important in the upcoming spending review. That work is well perceived internationally. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has now convened international Finance Ministers, and the area that the UK will likely lead on internationally is that of economic modelling and how we can do that better on a global scale.

The Minister spoke about the Green Book, which is still—despite the changes—essentially a neoclassical economic model based on equilibrium economics. Most scientists and economists on the fringes of economic thinking would tell us that we are moving into a disequilibrium position in our economic model. The two are completely incompatible and the Green Book is not fit for purpose as we enter a climate crisis in which many of its assumptions are no longer credible.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the theme behind his remarks is one of the reasons why we have amended the Green Book. We have created this concept of social value, so we now take into account negative externalities to the environment and to people’s lifestyles as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, for example. I am happy to have a further conversation with him on that after the debate, as there is very little time left.

We are working closely with Dieter Helm’s review and recommendations. I met him to discuss the issue of natural capital accounts, which we are taking seriously—it is a big endeavour. We are working with the ONS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bring that forward. I hope that we will be one of the first countries in the world to take the issue forward.

Following the report by the Committee on Climate Change, the Chancellor and I met Lord Deben and accepted his recommendation over the summer that the Treasury should do a major and urgent piece of work on how we can fund in a fair way the changes that we need to make as a society as a result of the Committee’s recommendations. That work is under way. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to give her more detail on some of those initiatives, which are extremely important. We want to take them forward with gusto in the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.