Limits of growth?

23rd July 2012

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Innovation will be at the heart of the massive culture shift needed to ensure that future growth is truely sustainable, argues Paul Suff

Is continued economic growth compatible with safeguarding the environment? For many environmentalists the answer to that question is quite simply no. They will argue that we cannot go on exploiting natural resources and polluting the planet without potentially catastrophic consequences.

But for most of the world’s population the growth versus environment argument is nonsensical. People in developing countries quite rightly demand the sort of living standards enjoyed by many in developed ones.

The global “middle class” is predicted to grow 172% over the next 20 years, and it will consume a vast amount of additional resources. At the same time, people in the developed world are unlikely to relinquish their own living standards without a fight.

So, we need to secure continued economic growth without further damage to the planet.

That will require a huge cultural shift and technological innovation, but it is not impossible. Humans are good at innovating. Companies such as GE are already proving this by achieving superior economic and environmental performance.

Many of the businesses attending the Rio+20 talks were there because they believe it is possible to prosper without further harming natural ecosystems – in fact, they understand their very survival depends on it.

Also, as the report from the Aldersgate Group highlights, moving to a circular economy model, where industrial and agricultural systems are restorative and eliminate waste, would ensure that resources are used time and time again, removing the need to deplete virgin sources.

As well as greater innovation and a new business model, we also need to change how economic prosperity is measured, so that it captures the value of the natural environment.

In one of the few positive outcomes from Rio+20 there was agreement that a new understanding of wealth was needed that goes beyond gross domestic product (GDP), and UN statisticians are to investigate how to incorporate natural capital into GDP.

There should be no limits on growth; we just need the right sort of growth.

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