Economic growth is no path to global sustainability

economic growth

Affluent countries must look beyond economic growth to achieve sustainable development, says a study from the University of Eastern Finland.

The study, published in the scientific journal Ecological Economics, investigated the preferred future paths of economic growth for countries at different income levels among 461 sustainability scholars. The survey results shed light on the strategic choices necessary for achieving global sustainability.

The study focused on green growth and post-growth economic strategies. The green growth strategy aims to enhance both societal and environmental well-being as the economy grows. On the other hand, post-growth paths question this approach and advocate for a shift beyond growth, focusing on environmental and societal well-being instead of economic growth.

“This research reveals that an overwhelming majority of sustainability scholars, over 75 percent, support post-growth pathways for affluent countries already this decade. For less affluent countries, the majority of scholars favoured either green growth or post-growth pathways,” said Teemu Koskimäki, postdoctoral researcher at he University of Eastern Finland, who conducted the study.

Different paths are needed in countries with different income levels. In the study, scholars were asked to choose which pathways should be pursued in different country income groups in the 2020s and 2030s in order to achieve sustainable development globally. A comparison of the responses revealed that support for post-growth paths increased over time, while support for green growth declined in all contexts.

The research results challenge the prevailing green growth focused approach, Koskimäki says. “Currently, global Sustainable Development Goals are based on green growth. However, researchers emphasise the urgent need to consider post-growth strategies, particularly in affluent countries.”

Koskimäki stresses the critical importance of understanding the views of sustainability scholars on suitable paths for countries of different income levels. “Policy-makers at various levels and sectors may rely on these experts as they implement the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Although sustainability scholars favour post-growth paths, the study shows they are not as familiar with this approach as they are with green growth. “In my study, I address the challenges that this gap in knowledge and skills can create for achieving global sustainability,” Koskimäki says.

GDP is an insufficient measure of societal well-being. The study also found that most sustainability scholars who responded to the survey consider Gross Domestic Product, GDP, to be an inadequate measure of societal well-being. “This underscores the need for a broader discussion of progress indicators, especially for wealthier countries, where the costs of continued consumption growth exceed its benefits,” says Koskimäki.

Based on the study’s conclusions, research, education, and policymaking should pay attention to targeted transformative change, with a particular focus on facilitating post-growth strategies in the wealthiest countries.

The study offers critical perspectives on the equitable and efficient implementation of various sustainability strategies and underscores the need for targeted approaches that take economic disparities between countries into account. According to Koskimäki, this recognition could facilitate the equitable and efficient achievement of sustainability, both locally and globally.

“The study reveals a potential contradiction between those sustainability paths addressed in sustainability reports and by political decision-makers, and those favored by scholars. A broader, more inclusive conversation is needed to ensure that we are targeting the right transformations and implementing them in a controlled manner,” Koskimäki concludes.

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