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Jonathon Porritt on sustainable economy

Par Jonathon Porritt
Publié par Clifford Armion le 11/09/2010
The transition of our economies to a near-zero carbon state would require 500 billion dollars of new investment over the course of the next 20 to 30 years. So you shouldn't be too surprised that many big companies are very excited about this because investments of that kind generate huge amounts of economic growth. Personally I think that we all have to be excited at the idea of taking green tech and the green economy seriously. There are huge benefits involved in it and it is particularly important for developing and emerging economies...

Jonathon Porritt was a prominent member of the Ecology Party in the 70's and 80's. He later became Tony Blair's chief environmental adviser and was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission. He was invited by Libération to take part in a debate on sustainable economy with Yannick Jadot.

A transcript of Jonathon Porritt's opening remarks

In politician after politician you find that the idea of living and surviving and thriving without consumption-driven, limitless economic growth is literally unthinkable. By which I mean, they cannot apply the mind to it in a consistent and completely rational way. So it is off limits to conventional politics, which means that each time they default back to consumption-driven economic growth that pays no regard to environmental limits. Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was launching the report from the Stiglitz commission, went slightly off message and described this as the fetishisation of GDP; turning GDP and economic growth into a fetish, which essentially means that it is taken out of the area of rational debate into a completely separate zone where it is not open to rational critique, not really open to rational alternatives.

This makes it very difficult to progress in these arguments in the way in which we really need to do now. So for me, given that sustainable development and sustainable economic development is unthinkable for these politicians, we have to ask what that means for the future of humankind, because Tonino Serafini and Yannick Jadot are both absolutely right; the response today is not let's rethink this crisis from the bottom-up, let's have a fundamentally different approach to it. The response is we need more growth, wherever we can get it in, in order to deal with the problems that this economic recession has caused. The position that has emerged to try and deal with that crisis is the one sometimes described as green growth or sustainable economic development if you like. In particular, it means putting a great deal of emphasis on new green technologies, clean tech, the root to what is sometimes called decoupling economic growth from its externalities, from its negative impact on people and the planet. And there is a huge amount of excitement about decoupled green growth.

There are lots of people who are very excited about this, particularly in the private sector, because it gives them the opportunity to switch from growth that clearly isn't sustainable to growth that looks as if it might be less unsustainable. And the price is huge. Investments into green tech globally today are about 150 or 155 billion dollars per annum. The transition of our economies to a near-zero carbon state would require 500 billion dollars of new investment over the course of the next 20 to 30 years. So you shouldn't be too surprised that many big companies are very excited about this because investments of that kind generate huge amounts of economic growth. Personally I think that we all have to be excited at the idea of taking green tech and the green economy seriously. There are huge benefits involved in it and it is particularly important for developing and emerging economies. I've brought with me a few copies of our magazine called Green Futures, which looks particularly at how this decarbonisation route can help countries like India, China or South America, enabling them to jump straight over the technology path that we have had to follow in the OECD countries.

I just wanted to say two things. Firstly, and complicatedly, I've reached the conclusion that this is not going to rescue us from the collapse of our current civilization. When you really do the hard work and analyse what is happening with climate change and the speed at which things are now moving, and you look at what is required to live within that particular bio-physical limit, namely the limits of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I can't make this add up. I think that our civilization is going to implode. I have come to the conclusion along with many organizations and scientists in Europe and the United States that we need to be stabilising at around 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, and as you will know we are heading rapidly towards 450, 550 and beyond. And nothing, literally nothing is happening in the world today that is substantively slowing that build-up of gases in the atmosphere. I know that this isn't really good news for you, and maybe you will accuse me of catastrophism, but if you are serious about the science of climate change, and you have to be serious about it, you can't look at that and then come out saying  "Oh, it'll all be alright probably, just as long as we press the green growth button fast enough and hard enough." It won't! It can help, it can make the damage of the implosion less painful than it would be otherwise. So that's my first reaction.

The second reaction I want to share with you (and this is much more complicated for us in the green movements and green parties) is that the progressive left and most progressive NGOs today, Non Governmental Organisations, whether they are pursuing human rights issues, social justice, conventional environmental campaigns, ethical issues or whatever it might be, that huge body of progressive thinkers and activists in society today are all in denial about this reality, and are trading the future prospects of the human race. Because they will not look seriously at the consequences of what we are doing. They will only pick out the little bits that suit them, and that includes lots of the environmental NGOs by the way. Because they will not truly own the reality of what is happening in the world today, they are in fact condemning us to an even more grisly and painful end. And most green parties and most green activists don't spell that out very often because we like to be good friends with everybody. The longer we stay quiet on this and the longer we fail to bring this message home to the progressive left and to the most progressive NGOs, the harder the fall will be and the more painful for humankind.

We are in a very interesting period of time for progressive politics in Europe, America and developing countries. Everyone talks about only having a few years to turn around the carbon intensity story. Actually, we've only got a few years to turn around the politics which we deploy. So it's an uncomfortable message, and for people who have not decided that their progressive politics must take them towards the green end of the spectrum, I have much less tolerance towards this completely faulty intellectual analysis that allows them to live in a complete state of delusion.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Jonathon Porritt, "Jonathon Porritt on sustainable economy", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2010. Consulté le 20/05/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/developpement-durable/jonathon-porritt-on-sustainable-economy