The limits to growth
“We should ask people to step up, but we shouldn’t ask too much of them”
Fifty years ago, the Club of Rome published a wake-up call that visualised the finite nature of natural resources for governments and the private sector. What has the report achieved? Climate economist Ottmar Edenhofer takes stock.
By Wolfgang Mulke
Climate economist Ottmar Edenhofer is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. He has also been a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. | Photo (detail): © MCC
Mr Edenhofer, 50 years ago the Club of Rome published its frightening forecast on the “Limits to Growth”. The report made huge waves, but did it ultimately make a difference?
The report has had a great impact. In the 1970s, it ensured that everyone began talking about the issue of resource scarcity. And it was the first to ask whether the economy needed to be restructured accordingly. Economists rightly criticised the Club of Rome harshly at the time, however, because the model simulations completely ignored the effect of prices. Rising prices leads to the more economical use of resources. This is exactly what has happened.
But clearly not enough. The warnings of the earth’s eminent collapse have not really changed much to date. We are still talking about the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, and the efficient use of available resources. Was the alarm call in vain?
It is not true that we are facing the same problems today. At the time, the Club of Rome emphasised that fossil fuels and exhaustible resources were becoming scarce. Given the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2, we simply have too much coal, oil and natural gas. The Club of Rome did not really focus on the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. Even today, this is not foremost in everyone’s minds, and promoting renewable energies alone will not solve the problem. We need to leave most fossil fuel resources and reserves in the ground. Unfortunately, the world continues to rely on coal, so the price of fossil fuels has obviously not gone high enough.
Is politics not paying enough attention to science? The slow rate of progress must be frustrating for scientists.
Science has a pretty good track record. The Club of Rome was one sign at the time. Then there were the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which put climate change on the international agenda. Science supplies information on problems and possible solutions, which policymakers then reference. There has to be a clear division of roles though. When scientists think that politicians have to “listen to them”, and when politicians think that scientists “do not understand the political decision-making system”, then something has gone wrong. Science’s role is to show and communicate alternative paths to the respective goals. Politicians have to learn that they cannot just think about what is possible; they also have to pave the way for the necessary.
Where will the world be in 50 years, on the 100th anniversary of the report – will we turn the ship around in time?
If we continue to muddle through like we are now, the earth’s temperature will rise to around four degrees above pre-industrial levels. Then climate change will be unmanageable. If we turn the tide, we can keep it within a manageable range. This is not a forecast; it is a decision-making issue. Policymakers have to pave the way for the necessary measures and initiate a rapid turnaround worldwide. With all due respect to the Club of Rome, it assumed that pointing out the scarcity of natural resources would be enough to bring humankind to its senses. The climate problem presents a different challenge. It is no longer the limits of nature that are forcing us to rethink. Instead, humanity has to practice self-limitation. This is a historically unique starting place.
How can we get to this self-limitation?
We all need to learn to curtail the use of fossil fuels through international agreements and treaties in order to prevent dangerous climate change. The most important CO2 emitters need get the ball rolling. The USA, China, the EU, Japan, India and Russia, those who are responsible for two-thirds of global emissions, need to sit down at the same table. That would be an important first step. The coal-fired power plant in Jänschwalde in Brandenburg ranks seventh in the global ranking of CO2 emissions. It released 24 million tons of CO2 into the air in 2017 alone. | Photo (detail): © Adobe Necessary projects, such as increasing the CO2 price, are meeting with resistance from the public and industry in Germany. How can we generate acceptance for using prices to control consumption?
It is not that hard to communicate the need, provided people are promised a refund of revenue. This ensures that the socially weaker do not bear a disproportionate burden. A per capita refund would even give poorer people a financial advantage, making it a social policy. The CO2 price effectively limits activities that are damaging the climate, so it’s hard to understand why it has such a poor image. Policymakers need to actively spread this message.
Alongside scientists and economists, do others, such as churches and cultural institutions, need to raise their voices more strongly in favour of the necessary changes?
Cultural institutions and churches create images of where society could be one day, but they cannot clearly show us the paths to get there. We don’t understand these paths well enough, but that is exactly what is needed to get the public on board. Because morality is also a scarce commodity, and people cannot act morally indefinitely. We should ask people to step up, but we shouldn’t ask too much of them.