Why we should reject the CSIRO’s ‘Sustainable’ Growth Scenario

The CSIRO has put out a National Outlook Report (NOR), which claims Australia – and indeed the world– can almost triple GDP by 2050 and increase affluent ‘living standards’, while at the same time significantly reducing environmental impacts.

But although the reports findings are likely to be widely accepted – and has already received positive reviews – thoughtful people have ample reason to be critical. I encourage readers to look at Dr Ted Trainer’s review of the paper, which highlights many reasons for skepticism. The most serious being that, in fact, the report does not explicitly state the reasons and assumptions underpinning its key, highly questionable, claim – i.e. that Australia could, if it chooses, massively decouple economic growth from environmental/resource impacts.

My criticism of the report is more basic. It only took me a cursory reading to reject it, simply because I don’t accept the basic assumptions underpinning all 20 of the reports future 2050 scenarios. In my view there are at least three assumptions, all of which crucially undermine its basic claims about ‘sustainability’.

Assumption 1: The Global Economy will face no resource supply constraints to 2050

This is a highly challengeable assumption. For example, a recent peer reviewed paper estimating ultimately recoverable resources of fossil fuel resources, including unconventional, found that total fossil fuel supplies are likely to peak around 2025, with the only uncertainty being how fast they decline thereafter (in the ‘high’ estimate, they plateau until 2050). If these findings are even close to the mark, then fossil fuel supplies – the lifeblood of the capitalist growth economy – may well face major constraints before 2050.

Dr Graeme Turner, himself a former CSIRO staffer, certainly thinks this is possible. Turner has shown that all current indicators have us on track with the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario of the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report. The BAU scenario, Turner warns, results in catastrophic collapse of the global economy by the middle of the 21st century. The key driver of collapse in the BAU scenario is, again, mounting energy supply costs – the very factor that appears to have been overlooked by the CSIRO. To put it mildly, if the BAU scenario turns out to be on track, then the world in 2050 – including Australia – will look very different to any of the CSIROs 20 scenarios.

Faulty Assumption 2: The world can continue to increase energy supply and mitigate global warming.

All 20 scenarios in the CSIRIO report assume at least a doubling of global and Australian energy supply. But there is a very strong case this is totally incompatible with achieving the “safe” 2-degree climate threshold.

In their book the ‘rise and fall of carbon civilisation‘ Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that decarbonizing at the rate needed, while energy growth continues, even at ‘carbon constrained’ levels (i.e to 850 EJ by 2050, up from present 550 EJ), would be unachievable. It would involve, they argue, an implausible scaling up of renewable energy technologies – particularly solar and wind – even when optimistic assumptions have been made about the potential of Coal Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and nuclear technologies. It should be remembered that today solar and wind energy account for a mere 0.4% of final world energy supply (IEA, 2015). But to effectively decarbonize the growth economy by 2050 these technologies would need to supply more than half of world energy. This would involve a level of investment far beyond even the most optimistic projections for these technologies. Thus, Moriarity and Honnery argue that the only realistic way for humanity to achieve a safe climate by 2050 is if energy demand, far from doubling, is actually reduced from present levels. Outspoken Climate Scientist, Kevin Anderson, has made a similar claim.

The CSIRO authors might argue that such critics are overlooking the potential for bio-sequestration – i.e. planting trees to sequester carbon, which makes up a large portion of the carbon reductions in their Australian scenarios. But even if this is possible in Australia – and people should read Trainer’s paper for reasons to doubt it – it is unlikely to make much of difference globally given most regions have far lower per-capita land availability than Australia, and pressing global food problems will only intensify in the years ahead, limiting the extent to which land can be used for reforestation.

Faulty Assumption 3: Australia could be ‘sustainable’ while continuing to take more than our fair share of world resources.

All 20 Scenarios take it for granted that in 2050 the world will, as today, be characterized by global apartheid between rich and poor. Figure 5 on p.8 of the report depicts a 2050 global order in which three billion people will form part of the global ‘consumer’ class. The consumer class is defined as those with annual incomes of at least $12,000 U.S – i.e. less than a third of the current Australian per capita income (a ratio that will be larger, if by 2050 Australia trebles its GDP, as the authors assume). This also means there will be another six billion people – i.e. two-thirds of humanity – who will be totally excluded from the ‘consumer’ club!

All globally minded people should reject this state of affairs, and be working for a more just world order. As Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern put it:

If we do not want to disregard this global horizon, then we cannot avoid the insight that the people of the industrial countries, but also the rich and the middle class of the Third World, with their ecologically unsustainable mode of production and way of life, are participating in a worldwide chauvinistic selection process, which robs others of their chances of survival.

But, even putting aside the demands of justice, the failure of the authors to think about fair shares, crucially undermines their entire ‘sustainability’ case. One only needs to ask, how sustainable would the Australian and/or world economy be if attempts were made to globalize rich world affluence – that is, the implicit or explicit, global ‘development’ goal?

Predictably, the report never attempts to answer this question. Obviously, its most ambitious, and highly questionable, ‘decoupling’ scenarios would be pathetically inadequate. These scenarios assume a factor four reduction in Australian resource use to GDP. But if by 2050 all 9.7 billion people were to have risen to projected Australia per capita income, world GDP would have to multiply by 20 times present levels. In other words, factor 20 (not 4), resource reductions would be required, just to maintain already too high resource consumption levels. Do the CSIRO authors think that is possible? Or, to take another measure, the global 2050 energy supply target would have to be at least trebled for all people to have Australian 2050 per capita energy consumption (i.e. from 850 EJ to 2100 EJ). And yet, as noted above, the 850 EJ target will, in all probability take us well past safe climate levels.

What then is the answer?

Our limits to growth predicament, which the CSIRO has not effectively refuted, suggests that sustainability – true sustainability – requires a multi-dimensional, transformational process of change, which enables the world to greatly reduce current levels of resource/energy consumption. There is a case this could be done, without causing severe deprivation, and indeed improving the quality of life, even in rich countries. But it could not be achieved in any thing like today’s globalized capitalist-consumer society. In other words this type of society needs to be replaced (not reformed) with utterly new/different social order – in both rich and poor countries – based on i.e. intense localism, a new settlement geography, new non-capitalist economy, participatory governance, and very different cultures – what some describe as a Simpler Way.


One thought on “Why we should reject the CSIRO’s ‘Sustainable’ Growth Scenario

  1. The CSIRO report states that we can maintain our present way of life with decoupling. This ignores or accepts that a major facet of this way of life is a massive use of armaments and military intervention to achieve whatever suits the dominant powers. Not only is this counter to democratic processes but it involves a major diversion of resources. Is this the really the kind of way of life we want to keep?


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