Fifty years ago, on 2 March 1972, the non-profit organisation Club of Rome published its first analyses on the “Limits to Growth”. On around 200 pages, the scientists believed to prove that limited resources and limitless growth are mutually exclusive and analysed the consequences of exponential growth. World fertiliser consumption, growth rates, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, the composition of ice sheets as well as life expectancy and birth rate were examples of data that were included in the calculated world model. The results showed that each day of continued exponential growth would bring the world system closer to its ultimate limits.
Fifty years later, the Club of Rome publishes a new book entitled “Earth for All” and again asks the question whether green growth is possible at all, or whether a “degrowth” of the economy would be necessary.
The book is also referred to as the “Survival Manual for Humanity”. An international team of scientists and economists warns that the continuation of humanity in the form it exists today would only be possible if five turning points for global problems occur. These include eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, transforming food systems and energy, and empowering women. These goals are also closely linked, for example, the global climate crisis cannot be solved without redistribution of wealth.
“We are at a crossroad”
Jorgen Randers, Norwegian professor of climate strategy and one of the authors, strongly warns that tackling global inequality would be so relevant because inequality promotes political destabilisation and economic stagnation. Subsequently, this would make international cooperation to reduce global warming more difficult. Since the first report of the Club of Rome, global inequality has increased. In many regions, the richest 10% have more than 50% of the national income. The defined goal wants a reversal here: the richest 10% should receive less than 40% of national income.
Another problem concerns global poverty. Although extreme poverty has been reduced in the last fifty years, according to the authors, about half of the world lives on about $4 a day and is thus affected by poverty. The great challenge of the next few years would therefore be to apply new economic models for low-income countries that are independent of the burning of fossil fuels and enable investments in clean energy and sustainable cities.
Authors call for transformation of the food and energy system
The authors also propose a radical transformation of the food system. While around 9% of humanity lacks food security, another 8% of the world’s population suffers from deadly obesity. The agricultural sector is considered one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters globally. It would also increase deforestation and the loss of biodiversity through conventional agriculture. The goal defined in the book describes a food system that is regenerative and respects planetary boundaries.
One of the keys to achieving these goals lies in energy supply: “the energy system is at the beginning of the greatest upheaval in a century,” the book says. Greenhouse gas emissions would have to be halved every decade from 2020 onwards to meet the Paris climate target. According to the authors, solutions to achieve this goal are already on the table. Moreover, transforming the energy system is closely linked to tackling global inequality: “If the poorest majority are hit hardest by rising energy costs, these people will protest against energy policies.”
Finally, gender equality is also described as a necessary transformation process. Societies where gender equality has been achieved would function better from an overall perspective. The demands in this context are full gender equality in terms of rights, capacity to act, resources, etc.
The underlying models
The report of the Club of Rome is based on computer simulations that converge in the “Earth4All” model. For the book, two scenarios were selected from a large number of available: “Too little too late” and “Giant Leap”. The “Too little too late” scenario simulates developments if existing systems were maintained as they have been for the last fifty years. In contrast, “Giant Leap” shows a simulation in which economic systems would be transformed through courageous, extraordinary efforts to build a more resilient civilisation.
In the case of “Too little too late”, the authors warn that global challenges such as global warming would not be met and that warming would then advance by far more than two degrees. Large parts of the Earth system would then reach climatic and ecological tipping points, with inevitable consequences for centuries to come.
The transformations that would need to be implemented are described in the “Giant Leap” scenario. In this model, the orientation of various global organisations that influence the world market would be reshaped to emphasise an ecological turnaround and investments in climate, sustainability and well-being. Furthermore, in this scenario, industries would have to pay for the use of common resources.
Loss of trust due to misinformation
“The most significant challenge of our day is not climate change, biodiversity loss or pandemics, but our collective inability to distinguish between fact and fiction”.
This observation is understandable given the collective inability to act on various global crises. According to the authors, mass media have been able to curb the spread of misinformation to a certain extent in developed societies, but social media have mitigated this progress. The dissemination of misinformation would drive a polarisation of societies and create a loss of trust, which would prevent us from working together collectively on global challenges. It would be a matter of agreeing on basic facts, which would no longer be possible. Education enables critical thinking and complex systems thinking and should therefore be fundamentally promoted and made equally available to all genders.
The turnaround is possible
According to the authors’ estimates, around 2-4% of the global gross domestic product would have to be spent annually on sustainable energy and food security in order to make a turnaround possible. It is also assumed that the global population is no longer in an exponential growth phase, but is stagnating, which supports the optimism that the goals can be achieved. The restructuring of economic systems must begin this decade,” says Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the co-authors.
The authors of the book leave open the question of whether a turnaround will be achieved: “The extent of the transformation may seem daunting – but perhaps there is good news: perhaps the boulder does not have to be rolled up a mountain. Maybe it is already close to a slope and just needs to be set in motion”.
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Prognoses are no reliable indicator for future performance.