The Limits to Growth of CO2 Emissions!
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The Limits to Growth of CO2 Emissions!

By Apurva Gosalia - Dec 22, 2022

The Limits to Growth” was the first report to the Club of Rome in 1972 on the state of humanity and a study on the future of the world economy. Dismissed back then by some, the time has come to see if its evaluation of humanity’s fate stands up 50 years later. Are we really destined for collapse? Or can we still make the right choices with measures like the recent EU emissions trading framework reform?

After several days of talks that lasted late into the night, negotiators from the European Parliament and the member states reached agreement on Dec. 18, 2022, on a reform to the European Union’s emissions trading framework. Their intention was to make the most important instrument of EU climate protection policy significantly more powerful.

In concrete terms, they agreed to tighten the EU’s existing emissions trading system (ETS), under which companies must buy pollution certificates if they emit carbon dioxide. The ETS is intended to create an incentive to produce less CO2

>Read more about carbon neutrality here.

Under the agreement, now sectors covered by the ETS will have to cut their emissions to 62% below 2005 levels by 2030 – a significant increase on the current 43% target.

“The carbon market reform is a major part of the European Green Deal,” said Pascal Canfin, who chairs the Parliament’s environment committee. “Thanks to the agreement reached this weekend, we will increase our industry’s climate objectives by almost 50%,” he added.

According to Canfin, “the carbon price will be around €100” after the reform, up from €80-85 currently. “No other continent in the world has such an ambitious carbon price,” he said.

At the same time, the number of pollution allowances will be reduced more quickly than previously planned. Free allowances for companies will be abolished by 2034.

Emissions trading will also be extended to buildings and transport throughout the EU, as is already the case in Germany. In return, the EU wants to set up a climate social fund, for which €86 billion have been earmarked to mitigate the additional expenditure for consumers.

The projects are at the heart of the Fit for 55 package, presented by the European Commission in 2021 to combat climate change. It aims to help EU countries cut CO2 emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. The provisional deal of last weekend still needs to be confirmed by the EU Parliament and its member states, but that is considered a formality.

Lessons from History

We’ve been here before, and lawmakers had the chance to act with vigor back then, too. In 1972, four systems scientists from MIT – Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William Behrens – authored a study called “The Limits to Growth.”

The team modelled the consequences of interactions between the earth and human systems. They intended it to be a study on the future of the global economy. 

Its basic message was that growth could not continue to go on forever on a finite planet. It also said that if we continued to exploit natural resources without worrying about depletion, pollution and overpopulation, the economy would collapse some time in the first two decades of the 21st century.

The study’s authors thought pollution is a major barrier to economic expansion. They projected that if then-current trends continued the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would reach 380 parts per million (ppm) by the year 2000. They weren’t far off. Somewhat reduced energy use growth after 1973 saw CO2 concentration reach 370 ppm by 2000. The current level peaked at 421 ppm in May 2022.

The last time atmospheric CO2 was this high was more than 3 million years ago, during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period, when the temperature was 2-3 degrees Celsius higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters higher than today.


Although The Limits to Growth mentioned climate change as a likely outcome, it didn’t try to forecast specific impacts. 

“It is not known how much CO2 or thermal pollution can be released without causing irreversible changes in the earth’s climate,” the 1972 report said.

Today, we have a much better idea. The broad scientific consensus is that due to the unlimited release of CO2 beyond certain quantifiable levels, global temperatures are increasing, weather extremes are worsening, glaciers are disappearing and the sea level is rising.

Predictions are there will be hundreds of millions of climate refugees by the end of the century and food systems will be profoundly impacted.

Therefore now late, but hopefully not too late, lawmakers are setting out certain measures like the EU emissions trading framework to limit the release of CO2.

Message for Today

The Limits to Growth’s message was a difficult pill to swallow back in the 1970s. For many in the West, it was an age of optimism, technology and economic expansion. From the beginning, vested interests attacked the study in every possible way. They convinced ordinary people that it was “wrong,” for one reason or another.

In some parts of the world, the besmirching of climate science lingers on, likely motivated by greed and ignorance.

We did not put into practice the solutions the study proposed 50 years ago. One can only imagine where we’d be today if we had. But it is also true that today things have changed. The revolution in renewable technologies has altered the rules of the game. With renewable energy, in principle, we can phase out fossil fuels and avoid the main causes of the coming collapse: depletion and climate change.

However, even if we could move toward renewable energy fast enough to smoothly replace fossil fuels, it would not be enough to avoid all problems. The origin of this collapse is unlimited growth. 

Already long ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that ruin is rapid after growth. If we want to avoid the so-called Seneca Effect and fall over the Seneca Cliff, we must recognize our planet’s limits. Perpetual growth at all costs was a dream of the last century. We must abandon that dream before it becomes a nightmare.


Apu Gosalia
Adviser, partner and honorary lecturer in sustainability strategy

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