The Only Real Solution to Climate Change May Be ‘Constructive Recession’

Jonathan Gornall

As speaker after speaker at the World Government Summit in Dubai this month took to the stage to fire off stark warnings about climate change and the impending extinction of humankind, it became clear that no one was going to take aim at the elephant in the room. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, president of the United Nations General Assembly, was among the international dignitaries who lined up to warn that unless governments abandoned narrow economic self-interest, human beings were going the way of the dinosaurs.

What was lacking, however, as it always is on such occasions, was a willingness to acknowledge the only effective solution to climate change. That solution does not involve putting the onus on individuals. Ditching plastic carrier bags and recycling packaging makes us feel better, but in truth is a dangerous distraction that stands no chance of reversing the existential threat of climate change. The only possible solution – the elephant in the room at the World Government Summit – is as plain as day. We have to top using fossil fuels.

Not tomorrow, not in some fondly imagined future when sustainable sources of energy have come into their own, but right now.

Understandably, such talk is anathema to all countries and nowhere more so than among the Gulf nations, whose economies owe so much to gas and oil and remain utterly reliant upon fossil fuels for their continuing growth.

Home to Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, and the International Renewable Energy Agency, the UAE can justly claim to have done more than most countries to fly the green flag, working to diversify its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels, investing in solar and nuclear power and aspiring to have as much as 30 percent of its energy needs met by renewables by 2030.

But as much as it is a poster nation for a green tomorrow, the UAE is also a striking examplar of the reality that, unless we somehow learn to curb growth, we are done for. The ever-expanding UAE faces runaway demand for water and electricity which renewable energy can never hope to meet. The UAE may well be honestly committed to reducing its climate-change impact, as it is committed to growing the nation for the benefit of its citizens. Both are worthy ambitions, but it is no longer possible to aspire to both.

For the nations of the world to give up fossil fuels before they run out naturally – in over 100 years, by some estimates, by which time the planet will be toast – will be beyond tough. The growth of air travel, which doubles every 15 years, both contributes to and symbolizes the wider problem.

But we are at a pivotal moment in the history of the human race. This is no time to allow seemingly insurmountable difficulties to stand in the way of ingenuity. After all, human beings are smart. We invented the wheel and agriculture, defeated legions of diseases that laid waste to generations of our forebears and put men on the Moon. We should have confidence in our ability to sort this out, by bringing together the finest minds in economics, science and politics.

As the slow-motion collapse of the Paris Agreement has shown, we can no longer afford to waste time thrashing out ineffective solutions that get bogged down in horse trading over incremental emissions targets. Instead, saving the planet demands a radical restructuring of the way the world operates. The model of perpetual economic development launched by the industrial revolution has done wonders, lifting billions out of poverty and dramatically increasing life expectancies around the globe.

But it is now a trap and, unless we can break free of it, it is going to kill us. From individuals and corporations to cities and entire nations, we have to adjust our expectations, to learn to appreciate what we have rather than continually crave something new and better.

In the past 40 years, consumption of gas, oil and coal has doubled to an all-time high. The only three occasions on which this trend was reversed, albeit briefly, were during the three global recessions in that time.

Perhaps now the concept of managed stagnation – or, better still, constructive recession – is an idea whose time has come.

Only if all nations work together can we hope to bring about this new paradigm. It can’t possibly happen unless we can overcome the bogus and destructive isolationism peddled for political gain by the Donald Trumps of this world, but happen it must.

What the world needs now is a hero – a leader or a nation with the courage and the clout to think the unthinkable, reject the failing economic development model that got us into this mess and propose a radically alternative global paradigm that we can all live with.

If that sounds revolutionary, it is. But this would be a revolution motivated not by ideology or a lust for power, but by the most fundamental of evolutionary imperatives – to ensure that human beings continue to exist.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.