Europe can do better - A Green Growth Agenda

Ralf Fuecks is Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He has published widely in newspapers and international journals on ecological and environmental themes, European affairs and international politics.

1. Sustainable Prosperity for All

All dismal forecasts to the contrary: we are currently experiencing a roaring period of growth in the global economy. It is driven by the wishes, ambitions and the entrepreneurial spirit of billions of people who are on the road to the modern industrial age. Global economic output will flat-out double in the next 20-25 years.

This is a good and an alarming piece of news at the same time. Good, because this goes along with lower child mortality, longer life expectancy, better education and socioeconomic mobility on a large scale. Alarming, because doubling our current use of resources and our emissions would amount to an ecological worst-case scenario. The old, resource-heavy and energy-intensive model of growth cannot be sustained. Therefore the central challenge in the coming decade will be to guide global growth in a green direction. This is ambitious, but feasible.

2. Europe as a Pioneer

Even in Europe the majority of the population is not sated with prosperity. The economic crisis has depleted many people’s reserves. In order to enable everyone to live up to their potential, there must not only be a fair distribution of wealth, but also a prospering economy with a strong industrial base. The path out of this crisis must be an innovative push, which will lead Europe to the peak of ecological modernisation. Our continent possesses all prerequisites to become a model for a green economy: a dense network of research and development, innovative companies, first-class engineers and skilled labour, a highly-developed awareness of environmental issues and countless civil society initiatives that are active on climate change, alternative energies, ecological agriculture, fair trade and global justice.

We can aim for more than the fair distribution of ever-shrinking wealth: Europe has the potential to become the pioneer of the new industrial revolution. It would therefore be fatal to put the brakes on the German ‘‘Energiewende’’ (energy transition): This project is a global reference point which shows that the departure from the fossil-nuclear energy supply can be an economic success story.

3. Make More Out of Less

At the core this means decoupling economic revenue from the depletion of natural resources. A dual effort will be needed for this: a continuous increase of resource efficiency as well as an almost complete decarbonisation of the economy. A CO2-neutral production method necessitates a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, from limited to renewable resources, from a throwaway society to a (re)cycle-economy. The old formula read: an increase of output (production) achieved by increased input (resources, energy) leads to the ruin of the planet. The formula for the future must read: make more out of less.

4. Investing in the Future

The ecological transformation of capitalism is a formidable innovation and investment agenda: it is about resource-efficient technologies, renewable energy, smart grids, new materials, interconnected resource-cycles, electric mobility, the modernisation of public local and long-distance transportation, retrofitting cities, CO2-recycling, high-tech organic agriculture, etc. In a shrinking economy, investments decline and the renewal of the capital stock slows down. But exactly the opposite is necessary if we are to overhaul our infrastructure and modes of production within a few decades. The green industrial revolution will become the catalyst for a new long wave of growth. It will change not only our production sector but also our daily lives, on par with the introduction of electricity or the triumph of digital technologies.

5. Growing with Nature

‘‘Back to nature’’ is not an option for the nine billion humans we will soon be. We must move forward to a new synthesis between nature and technology. The formula for this is ‘‘Growing with Nature.’’ The guiding science for it will be biotechnology, the technical realisation of biological processes. Evolution has brought forth innumerable inventions from which we can learn (bionics). Need an example? The aerodynamics of fish is the inspiration for energy-efficient ships and vehicles; the elasticity and resilience of spider’s silk is yet to be matched; the ability of bacteria to transform hazardous substances can be used to refurbish contaminated floors. The production and consumption within interconnected resource-cycles has also been copied from nature: evolution knows no waste.

The story of human civilization is one of progressive emancipation from the constraints of nature, going back to the beginnings of cultivating land and breeding livestock. Every age has enlarged the domain of human capacities and skills. We must now continue this history of progress along with nature- not against it.

6. Limits of Growth, Growth of Limits

Human civilization is dependent on a reasonably stable climate, on the fertility of arable land, and on intact water cycles. Today, all three of these are already in a critical state. The climate is at a tipping point, every year we lose vast surfaces of fertile land, water is becoming scarce in many regions of the earth, and the oceans are filling with waste. If we surpass the limits of what these ecosystems can bear, we face severe crises and shocks. In this respect there are indeed ecological limits to growth. The point is that these ‘‘red lines’’ do not result in fixed boundaries for economic revenue (aka economic growth).

What humanity can achieve on our planet will not be primarily determined by geophysical factors. Our most important resource is creativity. This includes the ability to overcome scarcity crises through innovation. The ‘‘energy factor’’ is not limited either. The sun as a power plant is a practically inexhaustible energy source. This is not only about the production of electricity and heat from solar energy, but also about photosynthesis – the transformation of sunlight, water and CO2 into biochemical energy as a basis for an ecological mode of production. Geothermal energy offers another tremendous energy potential for ages to come.

7. Nature as a Common

We are now living in the Anthropocene, an age in which humans themselves have become a powerful geological factor: man makes nature. Approximately seventy percent of the Earth’s surface has been shaped by human activity. Untouched nature is almost only left in the polar regions, in deserts and in high altitude mountain ranges, and even here humanity’s emissions have left their mark. This is not a free pass for recklessness. Because our impact on nature continues to grow, we are also responsible for it. Life-sustaining ecosystems like the earth’s atmosphere or the oceans must fall under our common stewardship. For this there needs to be a planetary eco-management with strong supranational institutions. Global commons must be protected from exploitation. This requires clearly defined rights of use, rules and restrictions, for example to protect the Arctic. An interesting suggestion is the establishment of a global climate bank. Like a trust, this bank could dispense CO2 emission rights and finance climate protection investments in developing nations with the proceeds.

8. What We Need to Rein In

Ecological responsibility starts with ourselves. It is right and commendable to eat less meat, to travel by bike or train and to refrain from purchasing products for which production workers have been maltreated or rain forests destroyed. It is promising when young people change their lifestyle and develop an alternative image of a ‘‘good life.’’ But a sober look at the magnitude of the ecological challenge we face shows that it cannot be solved merely by an appeal to frugality. Zero-growth cannot solve a single ecological problem – it would only keep the degree of environmental damage at a constant. In exchange, it would create new problems regarding public finances, social security and employment.

‘‘Less of the same’’ will not be enough either. To stabilise the climate it is necessary to halve the global CO2 emissions by mid-century. In light of a growing world population and the hopes of billions of people to improve their socioeconomic mobility, this cannot be achieved through austerity. Without a large-scale efficiency revolution and the transition to renewable energy, we will not win this race against climate change. What we need to rein in is our consumption of natural resources, not our delight with new things, comforts, mobility, fashion, technology and communication. These are irreversible attributes of modern life. The goal of our ecological policies must be a different mode of production, not a new human being.

9. Ecology and Freedom

Those who seek a way out of the ecological crisis through a dramatic reduction of production and consumption will sooner or later end up with authoritarian implications: if humanity does not voluntarily eschew material comforts, spacious living quarters, cars and air travel, fashion, imported food, cell phones, computers, etc., it must be forced to do so for its own good. This would sacrifice democracy for ecology. Such a tendency towards an all-encompassing control of the economy and society (extending even to birth rates) was already hinted at in the Club of Rome’s famous report ‘‘The Limits to Growth’’ from 1972.

The steadfast alliance of ecology and democracy must be defended from this: Firstly for the sake of freedom itself, which cannot be subordinated to any other end. Secondly, an open and democratic society is superior in regard to its capacity for self-correction, enabling innovation, self-responsibility and entrepreneurial spirit. This holds especially true for the freedom of research and the competition for the best solutions to the ecological and social challenges of our time.

10. What About Ethics?

Despite (or perhaps due to) the excesses of the financial industry, economic questions are increasingly ethically charged. In the general public, the free market economy is broadly equated with greed and unscrupulousness. Values are in fact playing a growing role in citizens’ consumption as well as in the success of businesses: fair trade, condemnation of child and forced labour, compliance with minimal social and environmental standards, criticism of animal testing and industrial livestock farming, recycling as opposed to a throw-away economy, ethical investment funds and corporate social responsibility are on the rise. Scandals are a risk for businesses. Corporations that ignore fundamental ethical rules lose their reputational capital. This is reflected in the balance sheets. The renaissance of the social economy is also a part this long-term trend: cooperatives, the sharing economy (file sharing, open source movement), using instead of owning (carsharing, exchange portals on the internet).

11. Actors and Alliances

The rise of this new ecological age can only succeed through the cooperation of many actors:
 Politics: must specify ecological boundaries for the economy and set the course for green innovation. This includes the extension of environmental tax reforms, an effective emissions trading system, clear priorities for research policy and for public investments as well as a set of regulatory guidelines: environmental standards, recycling quotas, information requirements, etc. Civil Society: environmental movements, consumer initiatives, cooperatives, critical consumers, in short: the power of scandals, citizens and customers  Science: never before have so many scientists worked on new solutions, never has scientific knowledge increased so rapidly as today  Companies: only those companies that are ecologically innovative, socially responsible, and who realise that values and economic value go hand-in-hand will be sustainable.

12. The Rediscovery of Progress

Precisely now in times of great insecurity we need a new notion of progress. The ending of the fossil-based industrial age lays the foundation for a new, green economy. Instead of painting the future as a world of constraints, it’s about generating excitement for a green modern age, the contours of which are already taking shape on the horizon. The story of progress is not at an end. We merely need to tell it anew.

The ecological successes of the last 30 years should serve to reassure us: the air quality of our cities has improved; German forests are growing again, rivers have recovered, many pollutants have stopped being produced and have disappeared from our lives, landfills have been cleaned up and a wide network of recycling has been established. International conventions like the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer or the Convention on Biological Diversity are up and running. The market share of organic products continues to grow, exchange portals and carsharing are flourishing, many companies have established a professional environmental management, environmental and organic certifications have been introduced. The nuclear phase-out in Germany is a done deal; alternative energy, electric mobility, ecological construction are all in demand.

Finally, CO2 emissions in reunified Germany have fallen by around 25 percent since 1990, while in the same period of time, economic performance has grown by about a third. The objection that these results can be attributed merely to the shutting down of grossly polluting factories in the former GDR doesn’t hold up: more than two-thirds of the CO2 savings have been achieved since 1996. They are the result of the growing resource efficiency of industry and the successful development of renewable energy. This is something we can build upon.

This text is an abridged version of Ralf Fücks’ book “Intelligent wachsen. Die grüne Revolution“ and was published in the Green European Journal "In the debate" on May 23rd, 2013.


Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.