Even after two days of binge reading, I still have trouble believing that the last IPCC report “Mitigation of climate change” is real. The document is packed with powerful statements with radical implications and might represent nothing short of a watershed in the history of climate politics. There is so much to talk about and so I will split the analysis into several articles.

This first one is about degrowth. The term is mentioned 7 times (plus 21 times in the bibliography)[i] in the 2,913-page report. This is roughly the same number of mentions than in the adaptation report, which had a total of 27 mentions (15 in the text and 12 in references). Just like in the adaptation report, “degrowth” is neither mentioned in the Summary for Policymakers nor in the Technical Summary, even though we’ll see that the underlying idea is present (this will be the topic of another article).

There are four places in the report where degrowth is discussed. In Chapter 1: Introduction and framing, degrowth is presented as an alternative sustainability concept with a specific take on well-being; in Chapter 3: Mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals, it is discussed as a scenario feature for modelling mitigation pathways; in Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation, it is evoked again in the context of prospective scenarios; and finally in Chapter 17: Accelerating the transition in the context of sustainable development, the term is mentioned twice in a discussion about the transition.

Degrowth and well-being

The first mention occurs in Chapter 1: Introduction and framing in a section titled “Concepts and frameworks for integrating climate mitigation and development.” After a few paragraphs discussing the relevance of the concept of sustainable development, there are two long paragraphs that present nine “alternative sustainability concepts”: doughnut economics, ecological modernisation, mainstreaming, green economy, green growth, degrowth, post growth, post development, and just transition.

After describing green growth, the authors add that “critics however argue that green economy ultimately emphasizes economic growth to the detriment of other important aspects of human welfare such as social justice (Adelman 2015Death 2014Kamuti 2015) and challenge the central idea that it is possible to decouple economic activity and growth (measured as GDP increment) from increasing use of biophysical resources (raw materials, energy) (Jackson and Victor 2019Parrique et al. 2019Hickel and Kallis 2020Haberl et al. 2020Vadén et al. 2020).” It is in the following sentence that the term is mentioned: “Literature on degrowthpost growth, and post development questions the sustainability and imperative of more growth especially in already industrialised countries and argues that prosperity and the ‘Good Life’ are not immutably tied to economic growth (Escobar 2015Asara et al. 2015Kallis 2019Latouche 2018; see also Section 5.2.1 in Chapter 5)” (Ch.1 p.41).

The sentence points to sub-section 5.2.1 “Metrics of well-being and their relationship to GHG emissions” which can be found in Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation. There is much to say about how remarkable Chapter 5 is and I’ll write another article just about that. But for now, let’s have a look at a few relevant passages on the topic of degrowth and well-being.

Let’s start with the idea of “minimum and maximum standards of consumption.” “Reducing GHG emissions associated with high levels of consumption and material throughput by those far above DLS [Decent Living Standards] levels has potential to address both emissions and inequality in energy and emission footprints (Otto et al. 2019)” (Ch.5 p.18). (The title of the cited paper is “Shift the focus from the super-poor to the super-rich.”) “The challenge then is to address the upper limits of consumption. When consumption supports the satisfaction of basic needs any decrease causes deficiencies in human-need satisfaction, contrary, in the case of consumption that exceeds the limits of basic needs” (Ch.5 p.18). The focus on high levels of consumption with the objective of reducing consumption (putting an upper limit of consumption) is one important aspect of degrowth.

This brings us to another paragraph from the same sub-section: “Vital dimensions of well-being correlate with consumption, but only up to a threshold,” and so “a mitigation strategy that protects minimum levels of essential-goods service delivery for DLS, but critically views consumption beyond the point of diminishing returns of needs satisfaction” (Ch.5 p.19). This is what growth-critical scholars call the saturation hypothesis, which implies that reducing income per capita in rich countries (one of the implications of degrowth) will not debase quality of life if income levels do not fall below a certain threshold (that point of diminishing returns of needs satisfaction).

The last passage I want to highlight is a Frequently Asked Question at the end of Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation. To the question “Is demand reduction compatible with growth of human well-being?” the IPCC authors respond: “there is a growing realisation that mere monetary value of income growth is insufficient to measure national welfare and individual well-being. [So far, this is only the classic critique of GDP as an indicator ill-fitted to measure welfare.] Hence, any action towards climate change mitigation is best evaluated against a set of indicators that represent a broader variety of needs to define individual well-being, macroeconomic stability, and planetary health. Many solutions that reduce primary material and fossil energy demand, and thus reduce GHG emissions, provide better services to help achieve well-being for all” (Ch.5 p.107).

Let’s unpack that sentence. The Annex I: Glossary defines demand-side measures as “policies and programmes for influencing the demand for goods and/or services,” which falls within the territory of the reduction of production and consumption discussed in the degrowth literature. If this is right, it means that this passage argues that degrowth (which involves a reduction in demand for goods and/or services) is not only effective in cutting emissions, but also to achieve well-being for all.

Modelling economic decline 

The second mention happens in Chapter 3: Mitigation pathways compatible with long-term goals. While the degrowth-related discussions in Chapter 1 and Chapter 5 were rather conceptual, focusing on degrowth as a vision of prosperity beyond growth, this one is more technical, with the idea (either called degrowth or economic decline or decline in income levels) understood as a specific pathway to be simulated in mitigation scenarios.

In the midst of a discussion on Socio-economic drivers of emissions scenarios in Section 3.3 “Emission pathways, including socio-economic, carbon budget and climate responses uncertainties,” one can read that “the SSP [Shared Socioeconomic Pathways] scenarios cover an extensive range, with low per capita growth in SSP3 and SSP4 (mostly in developing countries) and rapid growth in SSP1 and SSP5. At the same [time], however, also scenarios outside the range have some plausibility – including the option of economic decline (Kallis et al. 2012) or much faster economic development (Christensen et al. 2018)” (Ch.3 p.24). The term economic decline is here used in the sense of degrowth, as attested by the reference to an article lead-authored by Giorgos Kallis which is titled “The economics of degrowth.”

The paragraph continues: “An emerging area of literature emphasises the possibility of stabilisation (or even decline) of income levels in developed countries, arguing that such a trend would be preferred or even needed for environmental reasons (Anderson and Larkin, 2013Kallis et al. 2020Hickel and Kallis 2020Keyßer and Lenzen 2021Hickel et al. 2021). [Same situation here: all these references explicitly use the term degrowth.] Such scenarios are not common among IAM [Integrated Assessment Models] outcomes, that are more commonly based on the idea that decarbonisation can be combined with economic growth by a combination of technology, lifestyle and structural economic changes. Still, such scenarios could result in a dramatic reduction of energy and resource consumption” (Ch.3 p.25).

On the same point, one finds an actual mention of the term in Annex III: Scenarios and modelling methods in a section discussing “key design choices and assumptions in mitigation scenarios.” “A wider range of narratives describing alternative worlds is also conceivable. The sustainability world (SSP1), for example, is a world with strong economic growth, but sustainability worlds with low growth or even elements of degrowth in developed countries could also be explored” (Annex III p.56).

As to why there are no degrowth scenarios in the report, the authors justify themselves in a section of Chapter 3, Methods of assessment and gaps in knowledge and data. “The scenarios included in the AR6 scenarios database [3,131 scenarios in total] are an unstructured ensemble, as they are from multiple underlying studies and depend on which institutions chose to submit scenarios to the database. As noted in Section 3.2 [this section describes the database in more detail], they do not represent the full scenario literature or the complete set of possible scenarios. For example, scenarios that include climate change impacts or economic degrowth are not fully represented, as these scenarios, with a few exceptions, were not submitted to the database” (Ch.3 p.116).

Policies and institutions for degrowth 

The aforementioned passages in Chapter 3 reduces degrowth to a simple scenario of declining income levels. In Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation, however, the discussion becomes more complex. In a section titled “Equity, trust, and participation in demand-side mitigation,” it is written that “consumption reductions, both voluntary and policy-induced, can have positive and double-dividend effects on efficiency as well as reductions in energy and material use.”

The paragraph continues: “systems-dynamics models linking strong emissions-reducing policies and strong social equity policies show that a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability is possible, even without economic growth (Kallis et al. 2012Jackson and Victor 2016Stuart et al. 2017; [D’Alessandro et al. 2020]; Huang et al. 2019Victor 2019Chapman and Fraser 2019Gabriel and Bond 2019). Such degrowth pathways may be crucial in combining technical feasibility of mitigation with social development goals (Hickel et al. 2021Keyßer and Lenzen 2021)” (Ch.5 p.32).

A quick look at the references[ii] reveals that the kind of degrowth these articles talk about goes way beyond a mere decline in GDP and includes a variety of more sophisticated institutional changes. For instance, D’Alessandro et al. (2020) associate degrowth with a universal basic income and work time reduction, Stuart et al. (2017) discuss community-based energy systems, and Kallis et al. (2012) mention a whole list of proposals from cap and share systems and local currencies to not-for-profit cooperatives and commons.

In a section on “Economy-wide implications of mitigation” (Chap 3), the authors discuss the impact of mitigation pathways on economic growth. After explaining that it could either slow down GDP growth or increase it, they write that “several studies find that only a GDP non-growth/degrowth or post-growth approach allow to reach climate stabilization below 2°C (Hardt and O’Neill 2017D’Alessandro et al. 2020Hickel and Kallis 2020Nieto et al. 2020)” (Ch.3 p.86). Again, the references here are describing degrowth as something much more multi-faceted than a mere contraction of GDP. Take Hardt and O’Neill (2017), for example, a review of ecological macroeconomic models which the authors evaluate based on their capacity to test a number of “post-growth policy themes” like environmental limits, debt levels, consumer behaviours, work patterns, business models, and well-being. As for D’Alessandro et al. (2020), they actually model a degrowth scenario in France which includes a wealth tax, a job guarantee, working time reduction, a carbon tax, incentives for eco-innovation, additionally to a general reduction of production and consumption.

Degrowth transition 

We now arrive to the fourth and final discussion that mobilises the term “degrowth.” (Let’s remember here that some key degrowth ideas – even though not named as such – play an important role throughout the report, including in the Summary for Policymakers and the Technical Summary. This will be the topic of another article.) For now, let’s focus on Chapter 17: Accelerating the transition in the context of sustainable development.

The first mention is indirect. It happens in the second paragraph of a section titled “Psychology, Individual Beliefs and Social Change” where the term “achieve the good life” is referenced with “see Section 1.6.2 in Chapter 1; Asara et al. 2015Escobar 2015Kallis [2019]Latouche 2018; Chapter 5.” The section 1.6.2 “Concepts and frameworks for integrating climate mitigation and development” is the one I reviewed in the first part of this article, and Chapter 5: Demand, services and social aspects of mitigation is the chapter about demand-side measures.

But there is also a direct mention in the same section following a discussion on inner transitions (defined as “a person gaining a deepening sense of peace and a willingness to help others, as well as protecting the climate and the planet,” Ch.17 p.14). “Examples have also been seen in relation to a similar set of inner transitions to individuals, organizations and societies, which involves embracing post-developmentde-growth, or non-material values that challenge carbon-intensive lifestyles and development models (Kothari 2019Neuteleers and Engelen 2015Paech 2017Sklair 2016)” (Ch.17 p.14).

The two last references are well-known in the degrowth literature. Sklair (2016) is a review of the 2014 book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era and Paech (2017) is a German article written by Niko Paech, author of the book Liberation from excess: The road to a post-growth economy (the title of the article translates as “Where does the growth compulsion come from?”). Neuteleers and Engelen (2015), which I didn’t know before, is an article in Ecological Economics arguing that monetary valuation can weaken environmental morale and decrease environmental protection. I could not understand the relevance of Kothari (2019), the fourth edition of a textbook on research methodology, but I suspect there may have been a mix up in the bibliography between C.R. Kothari – the author of the textbook on research methodology referenced in the bibliography – and Ashish Kothari, a well-known growth-critical author, who would be worth citing here for his 2019 book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary.

The last mention in the overall report happens in a sub-section on Financial systems and economic instruments. “Also the degrowth movement, with its focus on sustainability over profitability, has the potential to speed up transformations using alternative practices like fostering the exchange of non-monetary goods and services if large numbers of stakeholders want to invest in these areas (Chiengkul 2017)” (Ch.17 p.59). The reference points to a book by Prapimphan Chiengkul titled The Political Economy of the Agri-Food System in Thailand (she is also the author of a 2018 article that would have well-fitted this sentence: The Degrowth Movement: Alternative Economic Practices and Relevance to Developing Countries).

***

The idea of degrowth is experiencing a historical rise in popularity. This is especially true in science, with the number of peer-reviewed articles on the topic rising from only 3 in 2007 to more than 340 today. The presence of “degrowth” in the latest IPCC report is therefore not a surprise but only a reflection of the growing importance given to the idea in academic circles and beyond. What I find remarkable about this report is the diversity of contexts in which the term is used: degrowth as a vision of prosperity and the ‘Good Life’ (mention n°1), as an alternative sustainability world (n°2), as a scenario (n°3), as a crucial pathway for a low-carbon transition in conjunction with social sustainability (n°4), as the only option to reach climate stabilization below 2°C (n°5), as a challenge to carbon-intensive lifestyles and development models (n°6), and as a movement with a focus on sustainability over profitability which has the potential to speed up transformations (n°7). Those familiar with the degrowth literature know that this is only the tip of the iceberg, but the world is now discovering (thanks to the valuable work of IPCC authors) how interesting the idea of degrowth is.


[i] There are seven articles that have “degrowth” in their titles which are cited in the text without referring directly to degrowth: Assadour[ian] 2012(Chap 2); Dengler and Strunk 2017Nicoson 2021Perkins 2019Spangenberg [2017], and Spangenberg 2016 (Chap 5); and Lietaert 2010 (Chap 9). This brings the total number of referenced degrowth texts to 31 (for a full list of degrowth-related articles, see here).

[ii] The economics of degrowth (Kallis et al. 2012) is the introduction of a special-issue. Jackson and Victor (2016) is a modelling exercise demonstrating that a reduction in GDP must not necessarily lead to an increase in inequality – a similar model is used by Victor (2019) to simulate degrowth scenarios in Canada. D’Alessandro et al. (2020) is another modelling exercise exploring degrowth transition scenarios in France. Stuart et al. (2017) is a conceptual critique of carbon markets; Gabriel and Bond (2019) offers a theory of distributive justice for degrowth. Hickel et al. (2021)and Keyßer and Lenzen (2021) both discuss degrowth as a mitigation pathway for modelling. Huang et al. (2019), which I’ve not seen used in the growth-critical literature, uses a computable general equilibrium model to simulate the introduction of a national emission trading system in China. Also foreign to the degrowth literature (at least to the best of my knowledge) is Chapman and Fraser (2019), a quantitative study of solar projects in Japan.

 

Teaser photo credit: Paul Sableman, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Only_Sustainable_Growth_is_Degrowth.jpg