A few weeks ago, as Europe was beginning to simmer, I caught the overnight train from Brussels to Berlin. Hoping to do the right thing, rather than fly, I bought a ticket for a new service: Euro-Sleeper. The carriages are pure 1970s, with Slovakian markings, most probably made in Czechoslovakia about the time the test-card signalled that telly was over and it was bedtime. Unlike modern trains, these carriages had no wifi, no docking ports, in fact no electricity points of any type. There was no aircon but, unlike the sealed carriage of the 21st century, the windows opened wide to the north European summer heat.

Conditions were spartan, as they were in my youth, like travelling in black and white. There was no restaurant, no trolley service, no food for sale. Given that it’s a 14-hour journey, the no food bit could have been flagged. The bunks are soft, soufflé-style, as if half the Warsaw Pact had slept in them at some stage. I’d been on the Eurostar from London earlier that day, where everything was set up for the commuter-worker. This train was different. I typed on my knees as there were no tables. These vehicles were built before the arrival of the portable computer, in a world that is familiar but distant, a world before microchips, before Moore’s law, before quantum computing and semiconductors. The whole experience was stepping back in time. I am in a vehicle designed before the internet – and I am free from constant distraction.

It was all very Milan Kundera, a sort of bourgeois nostalgia trip, wrapped up in a bit of environmental virtue signalling, for those who have the time and the money. It’s still far cheaper to fly. I enjoyed the experience, nodding off eventually, waking up as the sun rose over the north German plain. If this is what degrowth feels like, then maybe hitting CO2 emission targets is a matter of changing our expectations. Degrowth demands we slow down.

The degrowth movement is advanced as a panacea for global warming and is defined as “the planned and democratic reduction of production and consumption as a solution to the social-ecological crises”. Unfortunately, it appears to be overburdened with the expectations of its disciples as degrowth, advocated as a solution to climate change, is often also regarded as the universal remedy for global inequality, neoliberalism, neocolonialism, excessive consumerism, mass immigration and whatever you are having yourself. It’s usually advisable to be wary of any overarching idea where advocates respond to criticism by saying that the critic is defining the idea incorrectly. The reaction that many communists have to the legitimate inquiry about whether communist states worked, is usually to claim such countries were never “properly” communist.

Degrowth is supposed to save the world and it is clear the world needs saving. As usual the incidence of who pays and who is affected are not split evenly between rich and poor. Developing countries suffer most. A recent study found that the wealth destruction from climate losses in 58 climate-vulnerable countries over the past 20 years amounted to nearly $525 billion. They are being devastated by climate-related disasters, yet the paradox is they need energy to achieve higher living standards.

Developing countries are being asked to leapfrog straight to renewable energy, bypassing their own natural gas, despite energy being necessary to provide the services they need to live. As the Ugandan resident Yoweri Museveni observed: “The western aid-industrial complex, composed of non-governmental organisations and state development agencies, has poured money into wind and solar projects across the continent. This earns them praise in the US and Europe but leaves many Africans with unreliable and expensive electricity that depends on diesel generators or batteries on overcast or still days.”

In addition, there is the small problem that wind and solar require financing and financing requires economic prosperity that itself is energy-intensive. Meanwhile, climate policy is the lowest policy priority among the poor and only 14 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to clean fuels and technologies.

So you can see the problem. Poor countries want to get rich and, as of now, getting rich requires energy. This dilemma haunts the western degrowth movement. The brilliant Serbian economist, Branko Milanovic, one of the most influential thinkers on global inequality, asks us to do a little thought experiment on growth and degrowth. Without changing the income distribution, global degrowth condemns all those living in poverty (we’re talking a quarter of humanity on less than $2.50 per day) to remain there. Obviously, this is not a viable option. What if we decided that we would, on a global scale, aim to equalise the income distribution to achieve individual living standards of about $17,000 a year, or about the level enjoyed in China or Botswana? Such a global move would require convincing those living in rich countries to willingly accept drastic reductions in their incomes and quality of life. Such a utopian notion is politically impracticable if not impossible. Even Marx didn’t predict that level of global central planning.

So what are we to do? First, we must stop treating all countries as equally culpable.

We need to decouple growth from natural resource consumption. Some advanced economies are close to that, continuing to grow and raise living standards in recent years while reducing their carbon footprints, Ireland being a case in point last year. However, middle-income countries (such as China and India) plough through resources as they industrialise. China’s CO2 emissions scaled by GDP are more than twice that of the US and about five times that of the EU. In gross terms, China is now emitting more than the US, UK, Japan and EU combined.

The world’s poorest countries are not the problem. The poorest 29 nations, home to 8 per cent of the world’s population, were responsible for less than 0.5 per cent of global emissions in 2018. China and Russia contributed 50 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. If these economies meet their net-zero targets, the savings on emissions released will be greater than the total emissions from all lower-income countries combined.

Degrowth sounds attractive, and has a kind of moral rectitude side to it, that ideologues tend to like. But it’s not the catch-all cure for global warming because it is iniquitous for the very poor and impracticable for the very rich. Short of global revolution, the best we can hope for is gradual technological advances, the sort that have been achieved in the EU. This will take time. And if slow travel through the European night, on pre-internet rolling stock, is part of the solution, so be it. But you can’t go backwards to go forwards. Let’s not misdiagnose nostalgia for the future.

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