Alice Mah

Ecological crisis, decarbonisation, and degrowth: The dilemmas of just petrochemical transformations

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Informations and abstract

Keywords: Environment; Labor; Institutions and Growth; Environment and Growth; Energy, Environment; Political Economy, Energy, Environment; Environmental Economics.

In the throes of unfolding climate disaster, we are at a planetary crossroads of profound industrial transformation. This paper argues that tackling the problem of unsustainable growth is crucial in order to mitigate the worst effects of the ecological crisis, and that proposals for decarbonisation, degrowth, and just transitions should be connected. Decarbonisation has become an urgent priority in the global climate race to reach zero emissions by 2050. However, despite increasing net zero pledges from governments, cities, and corporations, the imperative for perpetual economic growth still remains integral to global capitalism. The degrowth movement challenges the dominant paradigm of economic growth and promotes non-marketized ways of living and working, but it remains outside of mainstream economic policies and has little resonance for deindustrialized and marginalized communities. Decarbonisation faces considerable barriers due to embedded interests in fossil fuel-dependent growth. This paper examines one of the key growth obstacles to transitioning away from fossil fuels: the multiscalar problem of petrochemical lock-in, related to growing global demand for carbon-intensive plastics consumption, the use of petrochemicals in green technologies, and regional and local economic dependencies. It focuses on the emblematic case of the petrochemical town of Grangemouth in Scotland, where there is government pressure to pursue growth-led decarbonisation, and local residents and workers have started to question their dependence on fossil fuels, amidst tremendous gaps between local social and economic deprivation and petrochemical industry profits. Rather than considering the need for just transitions only after the loss of industrial jobs, visions for just petrochemical transformations need to be more proactive, speaking to wider degrowth themes of well-being, community participation, and prosperity without extractive growth.

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