Three myths about economic decarbonization

October 6, 2022

The transformation towards a carbon-free economy is presented as the main solution to reverse climate change and promote a new sustainable relationship with the planet. However, this transition will not be a bed of roses. Three complex assumptions have to be understood about this process.

Decarbonization is one of the great processes that humanity is undertaking in the first decades of the 21st century. The awareness of the point of no return in which we have entered as a species in our relationship with our environment, added to economic forecasts such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), demonstrate the need to take decisive action to alleviate the effects of what has been an unsustainable relationship with the planet and its natural resources. However, there is an effervescent hope that has clouded our expectations of the possibilities of recovering from the disasters caused, as well as of the system itself to offer imaginative solutions.

But the question is: how can we really reach it?

#1 Decarbonization does not cost money

One of the most dangerous assumptions that we are making in the political, economic and social fields is to think that the ecological transition has no cost. Decarbonization is a just and necessary cause, but this does not make it cheap. While it is true that individual action can occasionally be driven by “free” changes, such as recycling or not buying certain products, the need to transform the entire production system is extremely expensive. Not only because of the cost of manufacturing sustainable materials, but mainly for the need for infrastructural and energetical renovation.

We must not forget that our entire production system is based on carbon: directly or indirectly, the growth of the last three centuries has been based on technical progress that began with the steam engine and the creation of factories, and continues with our latest technological inventions such as mobile phones or laptops. In recent years, the concentrations in the atmosphere of CO2, CH4 and N2O (the most important greenhouse gasses) have increased markedly, to levels that are considered dramatic by the scientific community. One fact that reflects the current situation with painful clarity is that only in the last two decades have the same levels of concentration increased as in the last thousand years.

However, there are also encouraging forecasts that affirm that the new business opportunities caused by this process could increase the global economy by more than 43 trillion dollars between 2021 and 2070, which would mean an important economic incentive to promote the fight against climate change.

#2 Decarbonization is the solution for everything

We need to promote a new productive, logistical and relational system between countries free from carbon emissions and that drastically reduce the creation of waste and pollution, but this alone will not save us from climate change or all the problems already caused by it. The world’s biodiversity loss is due to five key factors: climate change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive species and loss of natural habitats. All these factors have some relationship, be it direct or indirect, with the carbon industry or the so-called oil economy.

Although the decarbonisation of our economy represents important progress towards a sustainable relationship with the planet, it is not enough by itself. Even assuming that we reach the objectives set by institutions such as the European Union, with packages of measures such as Objective 55 (that is, reach a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050), we will need major processes of environmental and social resilience that will allow us to reverse the effects generated by a system that has exploited and violated many groups and regions of the world, as well as refocusing on the need to take care of our survival on the planet with a new conception of nature.

#3 Capitalism can be decarbonized

Many of the world’s great political and economic institutions, especially those of the Western powers, affirm that decarbonization will lead capitalism to a new paradigm of well-being and prosperity, as well as a drastic reduction in inequalities. The truth, however, is that it is a desire rather than a future certainty.

The natural tendency of capitalism as an economic system towards growth ad infinitum and the extractive attitude towards the environment – this being conceived as a resource and not as a living system – seriously questions the possibility of creating a framework of mutual respect between the human species and the environment. The economy is at a crossroads: reinventing it or dying seems to be the only long-term option. We have the technology, the resources, the imagination and the political measures to achieve this goal, but will it be possible with our business as usual painted green? For now, everything points to a denial of this possibility.


This article was originally published in Spanish in Ethic Magazine.


Teasser photo credit: Solar array at Nellis Solar Power Plant. These panels track the sun in one axis. By USAF – 070731-F-8831R-001 from http://www.nellis.af.mil/photos/media_search.asp?q=solar&btnG.x=0&btnG.y=0, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3359510

Ariadna Romans

Ariadna Romans i Torrent, political scientist and Philosophy graduate. Master's student of the International Development Studies in the University of Amsterdam.

Tags: critiques of capitalism, decarbonisation