Focusing on cutting emissions alone won’t halt ecological decline, we must consume less – former UK chief environmental adviser

(The Conversation, 2 Sep 2019) Reaching net zero emissions has become the focal point of government efforts to halt climate and ecological breakdown. It is easy to aim for but much more difficult to deliver – and worse, we may be focusing on the wrong objective.

During my past seven years spent as chief scientific adviser at the UK’s environment ministry, it has become clear to me that even if governments succeed in reaching net zero by 2050, it may do nothing significant to halt environmental decline.

To produce goods and services, the global economy needs materials – and that means growing or mining natural resources. Since the industrial revolution, the rate at which we have been using these resources has been increasing, and in the last 15 years this rate has accelerated considerably. As an example, China used 50% more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the whole of the 20th century.

The second of Newton’s seminal laws of thermodynamics tells us that the outputs of a stable system have to equal its inputs – and the global economy is no exception. Because the economy – and in particular the circular economy – is still growing, the increase in waste lags a little behind the increase in inputs of natural resources. However, retention of materials in the economy is temporary. All materials will eventually exit as waste, whether in minutes or centuries.

Greenhouse gases are among the quickest of the global economy’s waste products to be felt, and eliminating emissions is essential if we are to halt catastrophic global heating. But focusing our efforts on curbing one of the waste outputs without addressing how much we’re putting into the system is like putting a bung in a car’s tail pipe and hoping nothing will go wrong.

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The Conversation, 2 Sep 2019: Focusing on cutting emissions alone won’t halt ecological decline, we must consume less – former UK chief environmental adviser