Revisiting limits to growth

8 July 2024


Revisiting limits to growth

Reported by Zelna Weich, PhD Candidate, British Antarctic Survey and University of Cardiff

Members of CSaP’s Horn Fellowship met to discuss topics inspired by the concept of Limits to Growth. Speakers from the University of Cambridge and beyond provided insights into economic, political, and scientific changes needed to face the challenges posed by growth.

Financing an aging population

Professor Eric French, the Montague Burton Professor of Industrial Relations and Labour Economics at the University of Cambridge, highlighted the challenges arising from the UK’s increasingly elderly population. Life expectancy in the UK has increased significantly over the course of the 20th century. In 1925 men who reached 65 years of age could expect to live another 11.2 years, by 2012 they could expect to live for another 18.9 years. At the same time, fertility rates have declined in many nations, notably in western and far eastern nations including China. This issue has been further exacerbated by ever earlier retirements: in 2010 less than 20% of men over the age of 65 in the UK were in paid work, whilst in the late 19th century more than 75% were in gainful employment. These demographic shifts have demanded substantial additional public expenditure. Professor French discussed strategies to improve fiscal sustainability through pension reforms to encourage working until later in life. Using Austria as a case study, he described the effect of an increase in the early retirement age (ERA), which raised employment rates among the affected populations and delayed job exits.

Inclusive innovation: A 21st century response to limits to growth

The Centre for Global Equality (CGE) is a Cambridge-based organisation that has developed an 'Inclusive Innovation' approach to leverage cutting-edge science and technology to enhance the wellbeing of the four billion people earning less than $4 per day while ensuring that harmful environmental consequences are limited. Dr Lara Allen, CEO of the CGE, presented an introduction to the work and structure of the CGE. She raised the issue of how to balance sufficient return for CGE-supported ventures, while maximising benefit for co-creators in the developing world. To aide this discussion, she described two of the centre’s many successful projects. This included a small spin-off organisation, Lifetime, supported by the CGE Cultivator program, which enables small two-wheel vehicle electric batteries to be more effectively reused and recycled. Dr Allen also highlighted the organisation’s larger projects, including the UK Aid-funded project Climate Compatible Growth, which aims to increase investment in sustainable energy and transport in the Global South.

Growth of what?

Exponential global economic growth over the last century (in the form of global GDP) has been associated with significant social benefits, including increases in life expectancy and a decline in the proportion of the world living in poverty. This growth has come at an environmental cost, with growing concern around climate change and biodiversity loss. Some suggest that long-term economic growth is unsustainable and that prosperity achieved without growth, or degrowth, is needed. However, past examples, like the COVID pandemic, suggest that declines in economic growth are unlikely to result in social or environmental improvements. Dr Matthew Agarwala, Economist at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, suggested that green growth is the answer: economic growth decoupled from negative environmental consequences through technological innovations and improvements in efficiencies. Dr Agarwala suggested that attaining this new form of growth is essential to help the two-thirds of people still living on less than $10 per day. Overall, he concluded that in decoupling growth and environmental consequences GDP, while important, should not be prioritised above the capital (be this social, physical, human, natural, institutional, or knowledge capital) that underpins human welfare.

Critical raw materials – enabler or limit

Dr Colin Church, Chief Executive of The Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining, discussed critical raw materials, which are materials that face high risk of supply disruption and are of significant economic importance. Dr Church emphasised the importance of looking beyond the geological abundances of materials to determine risk. He described the work of the British Geological Survey who were commissioned to produce a "Criticality Assessment of Technology-Critical Minerals and Materials" in 2021, which is due to be updated this year. This assessment evaluated risk from both the supply chain (e.g. the rate of material production and recycling) and economic vulnerability (e.g. demand, price volatility, and UK reliance on imports). He noted the increasing dependence on individual states, including China, for the mining and processing of critical raw materials. This reliance is of concern as critical minerals are increasingly being used as a 'tool of statecraft', with restricted exports and adjustment to global prices used to influence international relations. These concerns are partly addressed by the UK’s 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy which recommends increasing domestic capacity for critical mineral production; creating a more diverse supply chain; and using the UK's position on the global stage to create better functioning markets with improved environmental, social, and governance outcomes.

Advanced materials for the energy transition

For the final talk of the day, Professor Henning Sirringhaus, Hitachi Professor of Electron Device Physics, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge, discussed advancements in solar cells, batteries, and waste heat harvesting. Professor Sirringhaus reviewed developments in solar photovoltaics, including perovskite technologies and tandem silicon-perovskite cells. He discussed opportunities for improving efficiencies in battery technologies, particularly through Lithium-Sulfur and Lithium-air batteries. Professor Sirringhaus' work focusses on the thermoelectric conversion of waste heat. Approximately two thirds of primary energy used is currently wasted and emitted as heat. Thermoelectric waste heat conversion technologies have numerous novel applications in scenarios requiring consistent, unmaintained power. Examples of successful applications include the Perseverance Mars Rover (2020), remote environmental monitoring systems, and health monitoring. Prototypes for large scale industrial systems can currently produce kilowatts of power, but costs remain high and efficiencies low.

Image by Kate Trysh on Unsplash.