Is it time for Ireland to consider degrowth?

While the notion of reorientating our national economy away from economic may seem radical the approach is gaining traction

Achieving the low-carbon transition without exacerbating social inequality is a considerable challenge for Governments. As debates about how best to undertake this process intensify across high-income nations, three divergent policy pathways are emerging.

The first and most common approach to transitioning to a low carbon future relies heavily on so-called “green growth” policy proposals. These policies usually involve a combination of market-incentive tools, such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes and subsidies for resource-efficient innovation. Such approaches are positioned as a viable way to maintain economic growth while mitigating its environmental impact.

This ecomodernist-inspired approach tends to rely heavily on market forces and the promise of future or imagined technological innovations to create a pathway to a sustainable future. It was recently exemplified by the focus on the role of technology in reducing the scale of the agriculture sector’s pollution in debates concerning sectoral emissions targets in Ireland.

The approach is often framed as a Just Transition in the Irish context — the concept that no one — particularly affected workers — should bear a disproportionate share of the burden of shifting to a low-carbon economy

However, implementing technical fixes without adequate consideration of the existing underlying social inequalities tends to burden the most disadvantaged in society further. The Government recently learned this lesson with the home car changing grant. In July, they loosened the terms of eligibility for home electric vehicle (EV) chargers, having previously excluded those renting and living in apartments from the scheme.


Such oversights can be costly. They erode trust in the Government and create opportunities for interest groups to misrepresent social and ecological objectives as contrary to the interests of wider population. Further, the overarching issue of the inadequacy of market and technological innovation to negate the problematic relationship between a growth-orientated economy and the planet’s environmental limits remains unaddressed with such policies.

Of course, many policymakers are attentive to social considerations when proposing changes to environmental policy. Approaches that overtly attempt to align social and ecological objectives from the outset are sometimes called the “Green New Deal” (GND) approach. The Green New Deal approach is inspired by US president Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s which involved a range of projects and initiatives aimed at rebuilding the US economy.

The Green New Deal is widely embraced as a policy platform by a coalition of progressive politicians, policy think tanks, and non-profit groups in the US and, more recently, in Europe. The approach is often framed as a Just Transition in the Irish context — the concept that no one — particularly affected workers — should bear a disproportionate share of the burden of shifting to a low-carbon economy. While social considerations and public participation form part of this agenda, successful implementation remains a considerable challenge.

Recent research into the low-carbon energy transitions among peat workers in County Offaly — who will lose their jobs as a result of a policy shift away from the use of peat as a fuel — revealed that there are considerable challenges in translating the theory of a just transition into practice, primarily due to the absence of a structured process. While this approach tends to be more attentive to questions of social justice such as employment and inequality, it usually stops short of questioning viability of the current economic system.

The degrowth perspective couples socio-ecological policy intervention with an emphasis on cultural transformation

Degrowth is the third emergent policy paradigm. The central premise of the approach is that high-income nations should plan for a slower economic growth rate by focusing on those sectors of the economy that promote wellbeing while downscaling resource-intensive productive and consumptive activities. Proponents maintain that economic growth makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish emissions reductions within the necessary timescale and highlight the unsustainability of the consumption of raw materials associated with a growth-orientated global economic system.

In addition, advocates of degrowth argue that the reduction in environmental stress related to slower growth in higher-income nations makes space in the global carbon budget for those in low-income countries to raise their standard of living. In contrast to the green growth and GND approaches, the degrowth perspective couples socio-ecological policy intervention with an emphasis on cultural transformation, such as less intensive consumption and grassroots community initiatives. Examples include community currencies, time banks, open software collectives, and cohousing and eco-communities.

While the notion of reorientating our national economy may seem radical to some — the term emerged from a counterculture movement in France — the approach is gaining traction in more mainstream arenas. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second working group, “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” released in February of this year, explicitly mentions degrowth 15 times. Further, many of the central tenants of the degrowth approach are reflected in the underlying principles of the Wellbeing Economy Governments, a collaboration of national and regional governments committed to re-centering economies around wellbeing as opposed to growth.

While the real-world implementation of economic, social and environmental policies does not fit neatly into one of these three approaches, we must be reflective and deliberative on how we might best track our path to a low carbon future. Doing so allows us to take the interdependence of social and ecological goals seriously. Conversely, politicised siloed and reactive environmental policies risk undermining the trust in our institutions and negate the possibility of securing the public buy-in needed to make the far-reaching technological, economic, and social changes required to secure a liveable future.

Orla Kelly is an Assistant Professor in Social Policy at UCD