New research suggests social transformations that prompt “degrowth” could cut humanity’s climate footprint in time to meet the Paris climate agreement target.

Existing plans to limit global warming rely too much on “increasingly unrealistic assumptions” that societies will be able to remove huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while simultaneously maintaining incessant economic growth over the next 50 years, according to a May 2021 study in Nature Communications. These strategies appear to be speeding the planet deeper into the climate crisis, the authors said.

Economic degrowth—strategies to shrink the economies of rich, developed countries while maintaining the wellbeing of the people and environments they are based on—might be less risky, and a better way to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement. Efforts to slow climate change that are built on structural social changes, like rethinking the way we work, produce food, heat our homes and move around could be more successful than those that rely on uncertain carbon removal technologies, they said.

There are “substantial uncertainties” associated with those technologies, said co-author Manfred Lenzen, of the University of Sydney’s School of Physics. “Carbon dioxide removal, including carbon capture and storage, is in its infancy and has never been deployed at scale,” he said.

Lorenz Keyßer, an environmental systems researcher with ETH Zürich and co-author of the study, added that the consequences of misjudgements of how much carbon future technologies could remove from the atmosphere or keep from being emitted in the first place would be severe. “The over-reliance on unprecedented carbon dioxide removal and energy efficiency gains means we risk catastrophic climate change if one of the assumptions does not materialize,” he said.

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