What is sustainable growth?

Keynote speech for the 17th Annual TRICS Conference on Achieving Sustainable Growth, Regents Park Marriott Hotel, London, 1-2 November 2005.

A realistic future for any aspect of policy cannot be determined without reference to key factors that could substantially limit or enlarge its scope. The future role of transport is an obvious case in point. Consider the implications of the one key factor that is now being widely recognised as the most pressing issue of our time – indeed of any time!

There is now a near-consensus in the scientific community that global warming is occurring – with frightening consequences. Only in the last few months, there have been reports of the release of methane from the tundra regions of Western Siberia, the break up of the ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic and of course the hurricanes in the Caribbean. The problem stems from man-made activities exaggerating the planet’s natural greenhouse characteristics which have so far enabled it to support life. Meteorologists have established that the planet has only a finite capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions without serious damage to the climate

Yet we continue to avoid evidence on this that stares us in the face. Instead of adopting lifestyles based on extreme thriftiness in the consumption of resources, we maintain ones that are resulting in the production of hugely excessive emissions thereby relentlessly accelerating a process with irreversible consequences. If we are to act as responsible ‘stewards’, the ecological imperative of protecting the planet for present and future generations must represent an essential background against which our decisions are made.

Government policy on this crucial issue is derisory. Wholly inadequate targets for reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been set, based on the hope that the necessary cuts in emissions can largely be achieved through a combination of more efficient use of fossil fuels and increased investment in technology, particularly in renewable energy. This approach is sufficient neither on the scale nor on the timescale required. At the heart of the matter lies the need to question its continuing view that growth is sustainable and that an adequate response to climate change does not have to, nor must not be allowed to, limit it. And this is what nearly everyone prefers to believe.

Look at the activities of the relevant professional and academic institutions. They attempt to give the impression of their concerns on the issue of climate change, setting up working groups aimed at addressing the subject of ‘sustainable development’. At the same time, their members accept commissions for work on ‘improving the country’s infrastructure, such as for airport design and construction to accommodate growth in air travel, in full knowledge of the facts of its highly damaging ecological consequences. They can be heard to claim disingenuously that the materials in their buildings and the energy required in running them are based on an exemplary green approach. And consultants are happy to be engaged in forecasting growth in air, rail and road travel and in work on how best to accommodate this – seemingly oblivious of the fact that much of this growth must have no future.

The progressive broadsheets fail to make the necessary connections. Their reports on climate change, and the expressions of concern about it in their leader columns, are juxtaposed with ‘travel sections’ and the promotion of flights to distant destinations, presumably with unintended irony. Other media outlets extol the advantages of second homes abroad with an unstated expectation of affordable flights to reach them being on offer into the foreseeable future.

Even those supposedly in the vanguard of calling for a proper response to global warming, such as the green lobby, advocate naïve remedies. They promote the view that citizen action, based on better education and the wider take-up of energy saving measures, will deliver in time the emissions reduction required. This may be well-meaning in not alarming the public too much to our dire predicament, but to believe that most people will be prepared voluntarily to dispense with the attractions of the current lifestyles to which they have grown accustomed is frankly wishful thinking.

This relaxed judgement that the 21st century can maintain fairly similar directions to those of the last century is mirrored in a recent glaring example. In the very week of the G8 Summit, with words of alarm about climate change ringing in the ear, Britain celebrated its success in the flamboyant competition to host the 2012 Olympics. Bidding hosts made no reference to the hundreds of thousands of spectators and participants who would be making long-distance flights to their cities, apparently oblivious of the ecological consequences. And that is just one global jamboree held every four years. Many professions and sports hold annual events in different world locations. Were the great majority of those who fly to them to be questioned, they may well now express concern about climate change and, with current trends, the consequent alarming prospects for their children. But they are either unaware of or choose to ignore the personal contribution their return flight makes to accelerating its progress.

Indeed, there appears to be a near-universal state of denial, close to collective amnesia, about the significance of climate change and a complacent predisposition to avoiding facing reality by burying collective heads in the sand on this most awesome of issues. We try to escape our responsibilities for doing what we can to avert an otherwise impending disaster by glibly wheeling out specious statements on the subject ‑ ‘technology will find the answer, ‘the Americans are far worse than we are, our vehicles are much more fuel efficient than their equivalents 20 years ago’, ‘it’s the responsibility of Government’, and so on.

It is obvious that it is imperative for public policy to be based on assuredly preventing ecological catastrophe from climate change. Decisions in the transport domain illustrate the principal theme of this paper that the growth in demand for road, rail and air travel cannot conceivably be met against a background of delivering dramatically reducing fossil fuel use and that all policy, practice and proposed projects in the transport sphere need to be reappraised in light of this. Whilst there is considerable evidence of the fact that growth can be de-coupled from current requirements for fossil fuel use, it is very apparent that it is too closely coupled for that process to be sufficient. With current trends, to believe that technological advances can be made within the timescale open to prevent a runaway effect from global warming is totally unjustified.

There is, however, room for optimism for there is an international solution. The Global Commons Institute’s Contraction & Convergence framework appears to be the way forward – the only one. And it is commanding growing support here and internationally. In my view, it is a matter of a very few years before it is accepted. It is based on principles of precaution and equity enshrined in the UN Climate Treaty, the process by which the future allocation of carbon dioxide ‘rations’ becomes equal per capita globally by an agreed year, while aggregate global emissions are reduced year-on-year to a relatively safe level of concentration. That requires the UK to reduce its current average emissions of roughly 10 tonnes (two and a half times the world average) to about one and a half tonnes by 2030.

Managing the transition to the very different lifestyles and patterns of development this will entail represents an enormous challenge but one which must be met. Of course it is only government that can enforce a system in which individuals exercise their responsibilities in this way. The outcome of the introduction of mandatory rationing will be that choice in future will no longer be able to be exercised, as at present, largely disregarding the wider social and environmental impacts of personal decisions but as a function of the preferred route to living within the ration. The ration, declining in successive years, will be determined to ensure the equitable delivery of sufficient carbon savings to ‘save the planet’. In sharp contrast to the vicious cycle of the current approach, the C&C framework between countries will create a virtuous circle. It puts a premium on conservation for everyone: people who are not contributing to the degradation of the planet’s climate system will be recipients of revenue arising from the sale of their unused carbon entitlements to those still disengaging from their energy-profligate activity.

With rationing, all aspects of our fossil fuel-dependent economic activity and personal lifestyles will have to come under scrutiny. None can expect to be excused from contributing its share towards meeting the target. Most transport developments over the years have evolved against the background of a seemingly never-ending rise in the demand for personal travel and the transport of goods, and of government attempts to add to the infrastructure to accommodate this, whilst preventing what are seen at the time to be unacceptable economic and environmental costs. The outcome has been more geographical spread, lower residential densities, the siting of public and commercial facilities in locations only conveniently reached by car, and holiday destinations only accessible by flying. The attractions of further and faster movement have led to a huge increase in transport mileage.

Over the last 20 years, average mileage by car and rail has risen by over a half and a third respectively ‑ and average speeds too. The number of visits abroad by UK residents travelling by air has increased more than four-fold. The UK government now forecasts a 40% increase in road traffic over an equivalent period in the future. And travel by train is planned to grow by 40% in the next 10 years and by air by 5% each year. Catering for this growth and delivering a sufficiently adequate response to the prospect of climate change from excessive use of fossil fuels and the ecological damage are clearly incompatible policy objectives.

The consequence of rationing will inevitably be a marked reversal of this processand an accelerating decline in the demand for travel. It will cast the future of transport and policy on it in altogether a different light with a fundamental questioning of the concept of ‘sustainable growth’. Given the powerful links between growth, not least in the transport sector, and the hugely damaging effects from fossil fuel use associated with these changes, the otherwise attractive adjective, ‘sustainable’, loses its meaning in any debate on policy aimed at accommodating growth. Just consider: at present, the average individual’s carbon dioxide emissions in the UK for land transport by car and public transport alone are about three times the amount that can be allowed for all their fossil fuel uses for a year – as is just one round flight from New York to London!

How has this all come about, given the growing understanding among policy makers and relevant professions – though not in the population at large – of the issue of climate change and its implications for future transport policy? Some of the explanation can be seen to lie in a number of fallacious assumptions frequently reflected in discussion.

First, it is that the most effective way of minimising energy-wasteful patterns of travel, especially conserving finite fossil fuels, is by bringing about a significant transfer of journeys currently made by car to public transport. However, in the UK, at current occupancy levels, average fuel use per passenger kilometre by public transport is not much lower than by car. Moreover, that percentage difference is reducing as technology is applied to getting more kilometres out of the litre of fuel put into a cars’ tank.

Second, and allied to this assumption, is the belief that a major contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions can be made by making more efficient use of fuel. However, by lowering the unit cost, this all too often leads to the generation of more travel demand. In turn, that has encouraged the public to buy vehicles with more engine capacity and higher levels of performance without incurring additional running costs.

Third, it is thought that speed is not a sufficiently significant factor in the pursuit of policies on reducing fuel use and thereby carbon emissions, whereas it represents a highly significant element. Higher speeds by road, rail and air require not only more intensive use of fuel but also promote longer distance journeys and therefore more greenhouse gas emissions.

Fourth, the green lobby argues that the problems that have arisen with the surge in air travel can be resolved by taxing kerosene whereas that would be likely to only reduce its rate of growth rather than result in the demand falling away – as it must. And the apparently more far-sighted pundits claim that the situation will be resolved by highlighting the fact that oil to provide for economic activity around the world is running out. This line of reasoning overlooks the fact that the burning of known reserves would be extremely inadvisable owing to the ecological consequences of doing so.

Climate change and urgent attention to its implications, not least in the sphere of transport, must be placed at the top of the political agenda. Our present parlous predicament is the consequence of past failures in acting collectively on our responsibilities – directly as individuals, and indirectly as electors who, in a democratic society, influence political decision-making. We are all to varying degrees complicit in a process that is already reducing the quality of life of literally millions of people and, will almost certainly cause the deaths of millions in the near and longer-term future. The only strategy now open to government can be to act resolutely to slow the pace of damaging change.

In all conscience, we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand on this issue.The harsh reality that must be faced is that if our individual lifestyle results in the production of more than our fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, then there are only two possible outcomes. Either others will have to be denied their fair share or, more likely, the planet’s climate will be seriously destabilised, with all the awesome consequences that are already being witnessed. It is wishful thinking to proceed as if continuing growth, as we measure it, particularly in the transport sector, can conceivably be described as ‘sustainable’.

Without urgent and radical changes of policy, far more ambitious and visionary than our government has demonstrated to date, we will be handing over a dying planet to the next generation. By our silence in not challenging our politicians for their mishandling of what increasingly looks like being a world catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, we are running the distinct risk that our children will justly accuse us of outrageous selfishness in disregarding the consequences for them of the insufficiency- of our actions to curb our gross energy profligacy.

Hillman M. The future of public transport: the dangers of viewing policy through rose-tinted spectacles. World Transport Policy and Practice, 2, No.3, 1996,

Houghton J. T. et al, Global Warming: the Complete Briefing. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

Hillman M. The Implications of Climate Change for the Future of Air Travel. Written Statement for the Terminal 5 Inquiry, Government of London, 1998.

Hillman M. Why climate change must top the agenda. Town and Country Planning (special issue on Climate Change edited by Hillman M.), October, 1998.

Hillman M. Carbon Budget Watchers. Town and Country Planning (special issue on Climate Change edited by M. Hillman), October, 1998.

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Energy – The Changing Climate. , 22nd report, The Stationery Office, 2000

Hillman M. Coming to terms with 21st century reality. Town and Country Planning (special issue on 2050 Visions), January 2000,.

Meyer A. Contraction and Convergence: The Global Solution to Climate Change. Green Books, 2000.

Hillman M. with Fawcett T. How we can save the planet, Penguin Books, 2004

Hillman M. and Fawcett T.(Editors),Livingin a Low Carbon World: the policy implications of rationing, PSI/UKERC Report, August 2005

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