Solving the climate crisis means ending our addiction to economic growth

 ‘Industry’. Photo by Iangleyo 2011) via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

World leaders are now touching down in Dubai for COP28, where they are set to discuss how to fast-track the global push towards clean energy.

And with the Global North responsible for 92% of the world’s excess carbon dioxide emissions and 74% of excess material use (half of which is extracted in the Global South), it’s clear the current ecological crisis is the responsibility of the industrialised economies who will be sat around the table.

The source of the problem lies in the very economic system that prioritises economic growth, profit and wealth accumulation over the wellbeing of people and the planet. The blind pursuit of exponential economic growth has propelled economic decision-making. But exponential economic growth brings about exponential extraction and exponential deepening of inequalities.

Governments of industrialised economies have presented ‘green new deals’ (GNDs) as the solution. But their aims and measures are reinforcing the economic structures that rely on colonial extraction in the Global South. Building the entire infrastructure of the so-called energy transition proposed by GNDs will require a new wave of extraction of rare and critical minerals. The global demand for lithium alone would go up to 4,200% by 2040.

This level of extraction will devastate entire ecosystems, primarily in the Global South, and alter the ecological balance globally. It will also create and cement racist sacrifice zones everywhere.

Global North countries instead need to transition into a post-growth economy. The way to achieve this is through a conscientious and planned process of degrowth. Degrowth questions the premise that profits matter more than people and ecological balance. In practice, this means investing in processes of production and consumption that are geared towards the needs of a diverse world, moving away from our current system of wastefulness and scarcity. Where we make decisions about what and where to extract, how to produce and for whom based on what is really needed to deliver the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Processes of degrowth need to map its impacts in the larger global dynamics. Otherwise, it will simply have no effect in the real battle for survival of life on this planet. A post-growth economy needs to have a decolonial and global justice approach.

  1. The Global South cannot endure being pillaged for wealth accumulation in the Global North. Reparations are key alongside, as Priya Lukka states, a complete reform of the global economic and financial architecture, as an assurance of non-repetition. This includes:
  2. Tax justice, (including a UN tax convention, tackling illicit financial flows, promoting progressive taxation and eliminating regressive taxation)
  3. Debt justice (including debt cancellation and the creation of a debt workout mechanism)
  4. Trade justice (including the assessment of trade and investment impacts, as well as tackling investor-state dispute settlements that force developing countries to carry out practices that go against human rights or ecological commitments)
  5. Technological justice (including the creation of a global system to evaluate potential impacts of technologies on the environment, the labour market, livelihoods and society)
  6. Financial justice (which requires the regulation of financial institutions and capital account management)
  7. The ratification of the primacy of public finance over private finance, and the assessment of the real impacts of privatisation and private investments in the wellbeing of people and the planet

As part of this, the Global South needs to be cleared of any ties with the Global North that are based on colonial or imperial logic. This requires that governments and citizens plan for the internal transition towards a post-extractive economy that is cognisant of the different needs of the diverse groups of people, and of the primacy of sovereignty when it comes to decision-making, while promoting cross-working with other countries in the Global South.

So there are solutions to the economic and ecological mess that are feasible and achievable, and de-growth in the Global North is one step, but it cannot solve all the problems unless it is carried out hand in hand with a complete reform of global economics.

The key elements lie in centering global impacts and introducing reparations for those least responsible for the present global crises.


Emilia Reyes is programme director of policies and budgets for equality and sustainable development at Gender Equity: Citizenship, Work and Family, co-convenor of the Women’s Working Group on Financing for Development, and co-lead of the Economic Justice and Rights Action Coalition.

  • This article was originally published on Open Democracy in November 2023 (Creative Commons BY-NC-4.o license).