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Chapter Nine - What is Meant by a Low Carbon Economy?

The term low-carbon (and net-zero) economy is used often by politicians and has gained common parlance but what do we mean by it?  In its simplest, it is an economy less reliant on fossil fuels for energy.  A low-carbon economy will not simply be an economy powered by wind turbines, nuclear power stations and solar panels, with electric cars and high-speed trains, but will be vastly different from  the one of today with new social norms (such as in our attitude towards travel) and technologies deployed (whether traditional or futuristic) to reduce our carbon-based energy use.  A net-zero economy is one where there is also some carbon sequestration.  And to give the reader some idea of the challenge ahead, the World Resources Institute has stated that all buildings must be net zero carbon by 2050... but fewer than 1% are today.  Alternatively, achieving net zero carbon globally by 2050 is the equivalent of building one new nuclear power plant every day for the next 3 decades!

Much has also been made of a future 'circular' economy where everything is recycled and reused in closed loops rather than thrown away as is often the practice today.  Goods and services will have to be redesigned accordingly.  This is the basis of the so-called circular industrial economy - the next stage beyond simply recycling waste.  This involves production and recovery where we can ensure that end-of-life for products is designed with recovery in mind.  This would lead to significant emissions savings.  I would direct the reader to Walter Stahel's User Guide on The Circular Economy by Routledge, 2019.

It is inherently difficult to predict what the future will hold but sociologists such as Urry (Climate Change & Society, 2011, Polity Books, Cambridge) attempted to define different scenarios:


  • Utopia of the sustainable society - he called this unrealistic;
  • Extrapolating from existing societies - he believed these lacked vision; and
  • Scenario building - accepting there is no single best future.
Scenario building examples which Urry advanced in his book include:

  • Perpetual consumerism (problem with exponential growth).  This is an outlook where "patterns of mobile lives based on new communication and transportation practices develop on an extreme scale".  There is a technological 'fix' and resource shortages are not a problem especially in the Global North.  It envisages an 'always on' connected world with hydrogen fuel cells being commonplace and allowing for cheap energy.  For this scenario, "Living a 'networked life' with most members of one's network being far-flung is worldwide and generates an enormous burden on very fast travel, constant communications and smart purchasing in order to keep up".  Also: consumption is conspicuous; travel affords social status; "burn-out is common and stress is a way of life for most"; and society is highly unequal.  Urry did not believe this scenario to be probable although he did not rule out some form of 'technological fix', which allows for virtually cost-free communication.
  • Local sustainability (requires reduced population).  This scenario "is what many environmentalists argue for, namely a worldwide reconfiguration of economy and society around practices of 'local sustainability'". This would entail a paradigm shift towards local and smaller-scale lifestyles globally.  The carbon footprints of most things would be calculated and social inequality would be less.  Also: friends would be neighbours; families would not move away; food would be eaten within season; most goods and services would be simpler and locally sourced; and "long-distance travel based on 'choice' would be uncommon and a source of low-status".  The transition to such a society would require facilitating extensive community centre and commune building.  Cars would be a luxury while Urry argued "This scenario could develop in response to dramatically decreased availability of cheap energy and increased global contestation" and crisis would form the backgroud to change.  Again, however, Urry believed that this scenario was possible but improbable since "it requires the dismantling of almost all the systems of the twentieth century, as well as a much smaller global population".  To realise this would require a global economic crisis.
  • Regional warlordism (retreat from globalization).  This is a scenario, which Urry believed was more probable but less preferable, where systems break down and climate change leads to conflict and war.  Civilization would suffer, living standards would fall, and local 'warlords' would increase.  There would be energy shortages while, overall, the world population would plummet. "Systems of secure long-range mobility would disappear, except for the super-rich". Some cars and trucks would remain but most would be rusting from previous decades.  Society would split with those who can afford it living in gated protected communities while the rest would be terrorists, refugees or slaves.  The Global South would suffer.
  • Low-carbon, digital networks (techno-future).  Finally, Urry described a fourth, more preferable scenario "but still full of risks and dangers".  This is where a crisis in capitalism precipitates new investment in a low carbon world; a low carbon 'economy-and-society' paradigm.  This would involve networks of self-reliant communes shifting to local and smaller social practices.  Towns would have special features to attract residents while software would work out 'intelligently' the best means of doing tasks.  Travel would involve smart vehicles integrated with public travel but long-distance travel would be frowned upon.  Quotas or some form of rationing would be used to ensure services were not 'overused' and would be complemented by virtual travel and video-conferencing.  Although Urry believed this last scenario was a distinct possibility, he identified major complexities: first, new infrastructure would be costly to implement with global development unlikely; high amounts of 'aid' from the rich North to the poor South would be necessary; and rationing would be required, especially in transport.  From this, tracking and tracing would develop with an 'Orwellian-ization' of self and society.  Nevertheless, Urry advanced this scenario as the best available and listed some predictions so that it might prosper and relegate existing high carbon systems to history.
In concluding, Urry noted that, without planning, none of the above scenarios were certain since each entailed vulnerablities and risks to human life.

Each scenario must be treated with a healthly degree of scepticism.  None of us can predict entirely the future and certainly not the next 3 decades.  It is clear, however, that as a result of the threat of climate change, many profound changes are necessary and some of these have been highlighted here.

What is certain is that the high carbon life of the twentieth century is coming to and end, and in the twenty-first century we must all, to some degree, consider the future.  What we do or don't do in the next 3 decades will determine the sustainability of the planet for the rest of the 21st Century and beyond.  Yet even this timescale belittles the fact that the next 5-10 years are critical in determing our futures given that, to get us on the 'right path', we very much need to make sensible choices in the coming decade

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