“It’s such a tiresome discussion. It doesn’t make sense,” sighs Auke irritably. “I eat veggie burgers and go by train. By doing this, I’m sure I’m causing less CO2 emissions than when I toss a cheap meatball into my shopping basket. Or when I travel by plane. But by doing so, I am driving up the gross national product (GNP) because meat substitutes and train tickets are more expensive. This example alone shows that CO2 emissions and GNP have no connection.”

The trigger for Auke’s irritation comes from a study in Nature: “In this study, the researchers assume that CO2 emissions increase as GDP increases. They don’t say it literally, but the idea is: ‘Oh, emissions have to go down, so we have to make sure that GDP goes down’.”

According to Auke, the researchers are making a connection where there is none. “Suppose someone makes an electric car for a city and makes money with this. And then he spends it on something that emits relatively little CO2, watching movies online, for example. Then GNP doesn’t go down, but emissions do. This statistic says so little. It’s like someone asking you to look at the RPM of an electric motor. ‘So what? Who cares?'”

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    Where does the money go? Nobody knows

    GNP indicates how many goods and services a country produces per year. Auke says: “It says something about the prosperity of a country. You know how fast and how much money is being pumped around in the economy. People who have money always know how to find something to spend it on. And what exactly do they spend it on? Nobody knows. GNP doesn’t say anything about that. But that’s exactly what you want to know. How many raw materials do you use for production? How do you treat the land? Are you creating pollution? All these things are important, but they are not reflected in GNP.”

    So it bothers Auke immensely that it is suggested that bringing GDP down will automatically reduce emissions. “If I follow that reasoning, I should burn trees and eat meat. After all, that’s cheaper. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? We all know that this does not reduce emissions. But now it is being said – although not literally – that shrinking the economy is good for emissions.”

    Auke puts on a stern face and points his finger. “You can’t buy a car anymore. Because it’s bad. No more flying. Because it’s bad. No more children. Because it’s bad.” In a normal tone, he continues, “I totally agree that we need to be more conscious of the Earth, but please, let’s not focus on GDP. Why should we give up much of our prosperity? We have alternatives that are cleaner for which we only need sacrifice very little of our wealth. Right now renewable electricity is still more expensive, for example, but that won’t be the case forever.”

    “Hey, look! It’s already happening!”

    So where does the idea come from that CO2 emissions and prosperity are linked? “In the heyday of the fossil fuel economy, this may have been true – more production meant more emissions. But just because we weren’t able to produce low-carbon energy in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do it now. All around us we see evidence that it can be done. Electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines. But according to economists, you cannot separate GDP and CO2 emissions. It’s as if they don’t want to see coal plants closing everywhere and more sustainable alternatives appearing that emit about 10 times less CO2 per kWh. It’s a bit like in the beginning with electric driving. Back then everyone was shouting that it was only for short trips, whereas the Tesla Roadster now proves otherwise.” Then he says in an exaggerated voice: “Hey! Look it’s already happening!”

    Auke reiterates that he is all for degrowth, but in a way that looks at “useful things.” “We need to think about an economy that doesn’t grow by default, which economists currently see as progress. I’m all for degrowth, but while steering towards things that are useful. Take out the bad things. For example, look at Kate Raworth with the doughnut economy. She looks way beyond GDP. She looks at how everyone can meet their needs but within ecological limits. So degrowth, yes, if you look at things that actually affect climate change. And no, if you only look at such an irrelevant statistic as GNP.”

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    About the author

    Author profile picture Milan Lenters is a writer and editor. Through IO, he got to know his native city Eindhoven in a different way and sometimes looks with amazement at the many stories that lie ahead.