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Sustainable wellbeing, necessary emissions and fair burdens

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 4 discusses some of the questions, dilemmas and opportunities that arise when the claims of human need confront the present global economic system. It asks what would constitute a moral minimum of need satisfaction across today’s world and then tries to estimate what ‘necessary emissions’ that would entail. Meeting needs will always be a lower carbon path than meeting untrammelled consumer preferences financed by ever-growing incomes. But whether it is low enough to protect the needs of future generations will depend on, first, the conflicts and synergies between the SDGs and a 2 °C mitigation strategy and, second, the presence of a global equity framework. All existing strategies ignore the role of consumption in the affluent world, yet sustainability and distribution are intimately connected. My conclusion is that equity, redistribution and prioritising human needs, far from being diversions from the basic task of decarbonising the economy, are critical climate policies.

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The social dimensions of climate change

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 1 summarises our best knowledge about the predicted future of global warming and its potentially catastrophic implications for human habitats and human wellbeing. The policy options are summarised, divided between programmes to mitigate climate change and to adapt to it. But climate policy alone could be unjust and inequitable. The goal must be to respect biophysical boundaries while at the same time pursuing sustainable wellbeing: that is, wellbeing for all current peoples as well as for future generations. This means paying attention to its distribution between peoples, and to issues of equity and social justice. Between an upper boundary set by biophysical limits and a lower boundary set by decent levels of wellbeing for all today lies a safe and just space for humanity. The chapter concludes by noting two global landmarks in 2015: the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate agreement. Together they reveal a yawning gap between what is needed for a safe climate and the prospects for a just and flourishing society.

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Post-growth, redistribution and wellbeing

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 8 takes off from the argument that even a combination of radical eco-efficiency and recomposing consumption will not cut emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous global warming if economic growth continues in the rich world. It sets out some basic features of a post-growth or degrowth economy: an emphasis on reproduction not production, investment not consumption, more discretionary time not more commodities, more equality and redistribution not less. This would profoundly affect all existing welfare states, which are premised on economic growth. A variety of policy solutions are considered, including spreading wealth more evenly through alternative forms of taxation and ownership, and fostering the core or social economy. An economy and a society that can no longer rely on annual growth will require a radical redistribution of carbon, time and the ownership of wealth. The most realistic policy to achieve this transition, it is argued, is gradually to reduce paid work time – another vital eco-social policy.

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Human needs and sustainable wellbeing

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 2 sets out a novel normative framework to judge progress in both human welfare and planetary sustainability: universal human needs and their satisfaction. It outlines a theory of human need and identifies health and autonomy as fundamental needs universally required to enable people to participate in their social forms of life. It goes on to distinguish these universal needs from culturally specific satisfiers and sketches a way of assessing the latter. These material satisfiers themselves require a set of institutions to decide on and produce them in a sustainable way. Finally, the chapter restates the strong normative priorities that follow: meeting people’s basic needs, now and in the future, should be the first priority of justice, and satisfying needs thus takes moral precedence over satisfying consumer preferences.

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Heat, Greed and Human Need

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

This book builds an essential bridge between climate change and social policy. Combining ethics and human need theory with political economy and climate science, it offers a long-term, interdisciplinary analysis of the prospects for sustainable development and social justice. Beyond ‘green growth’ (which assumes an unprecedented rise in the emissions efficiency of production) it envisages two further policy stages vital for rich countries: a progressive ‘recomposition’ of consumption, and a post-growth ceiling on demand. An essential resource for scholars and policymakers.
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From welfare states to climate mitigation states?

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 5 starts with social policies and their embodiment in Western ‘welfare states’. What are the new climate-related risks we can expect in the developed world and what are their implications for social policy? The chapter traces the development of welfare states and shows how they are being eroded by external and internal pressures, and have been outflanked by a rise in inequality. It applies comparative policy analysis to outline parallels between ‘climate mitigation states’ and welfare states. Such a survey reveals both common trends and significant national and regional variations. The chapter concludes by distinguishing three routes to decarbonisation – green growth, recomposed consumption, and degrowth. It sets up a framework for tracking the relationship between climate policy and social policy within these routes, which is applied in the remaining chapters.

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Decarbonising the economy and its social consequences

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 6 surveys climate mitigation programmes to reduce territorial emissions in the global North, building on the discussion of green growth in Chapter 3. It describes current policy frameworks for cutting carbon and surveys the major carbon mitigation strategies: pricing carbon, regulation, and strategic investment. It then charts some of the distributive and social consequences of these policies and the roles that social policies can and cannot play in counteracting them. It calls for a move from reactive social policies to integrated ‘eco-social’ policies, such as ‘green new deals’ to retrofit housing and provide sustainable domestic energy. It concludes that radical and fair carbon mitigation will require a shift from the neoliberal model towards a more coordinated and actively interventionist state.

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Decarbonising consumption: needs, necessities and eco-social policies

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 7 turns from production to consumption and consumption-based emissions. This leads to another policy goal for the rich world: to ‘recompose’ consumption to make it more sustainable. Yet simply redistributing income to low-income households could raise, rather than lower, emissions. This chapter therefore returns to the theory of human need. It sets out a ‘dual strategy’ methodology for identifying a minimum bundle of necessary consumption items in the UK and suggesting how it might be used to identify a maximum bundle for sustainable consumption. In this way a ‘consumption corridor’ between upper unsustainable and lower unacceptable bounds can be charted. In the light of powerful corporate and other interests shaping consumer preferences a broad strategy of upstream prevention is advocated. To implement this approach, further eco-social policies are suggested, including taxing high-carbon luxuries, more social consumption, and household carbon rationing. The conclusion notes that this whole approach challenges some fundamental principles of orthodox economics.

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Conclusion: a three-stage transition

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 9 concludes. The idea of common human needs provides an essential alternative to the pursuit of unsustainable consumption growth within contemporary capitalism. Needs are limited; wants are limitless. Yet the pursuit of social welfare and climate stability today cannot be separated from the dynamics and future of capitalist economies. The chapter advocates a three-stage process to reconcile human wellbeing with planetary stability. The first, more eco-efficient green growth, requires a shift from liberal to more coordinated forms of capitalism. The second, recomposing consumption, would require at the least a shift from coordinated to a more ‘reflexive’ form of capitalism. The third, degrowth, is incompatible with the accumulation drive of any form of capitalism yet is ultimately – and quite soon – essential for our future prosperity, if not our very existence. It is for this reason, among others, that this book proposes an interim strategy to recompose consumption in rich countries towards low-carbon need satisfiers. It could provide a viable route from a dangerous present to a seemingly impossible future.

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Climate capitalism: emissions, inequality, green growth

Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

Ian Gough

Chapter 3 develops a political economy approach to understand ‘climate capitalism’, a model that aims to square capitalism’s need for profit and continual growth with rapid decarbonisation of the world economy. It analyses the major global drivers of emissions, including population growth, income growth, the eco-efficiency of production, and the global divide between emissions from production and consumption. It then turns to the role of inequalities – international and intra-national – and their impact on emissions and responsibilities for global warming. It outlines and critiques the current dominant perspective of ‘green growth’ powered by investment in renewables and carbon-saving technological change designed to decouple emissions from output. The chapter concludes by noting the current three-way contradiction between economic growth, ending poverty and dangerous climate change.