There is little doubt that recessions can revive interest in frugality and promote greener lifestyle choices like biking to work. They can even raise the profile of alternative economic models like no growth or steady state economics. For these reasons, some among us have argued that recessions can actually help the environment.
But we should be careful about taking this argument too far.
As new research published in Nature by Richard York of the University of Oregon demonstrates, while economic growth leads to increasing CO2 emissions, a contraction of GDP does not bring about CO2 cuts of anywhere near the same magnitude. York explains that there are pretty obvious, infrastructural reasons for this imbalance:
Why does economic decline not have an effect on CO2 emissions that is symmetrical with the effect of economic growth? There are various reasons that this may occur, but the asymmetry is probably due to the fact that economic growth produces durable goods, such as cars and energy-intensive homes, and infrastructure, such as manufacturing facilities and transportation networks, that are not removed by economic decline and that continue to contribute to CO2 emissions even after growth is curtailed.
That's not to say we shouldn't continue to question a growth-at-all-costs model of economic development. But we also shouldn't rely on the long-term unsustainability of that model, or the inevitable boom-and-bust cycles of our economy, to keep CO2 emissions in check. Instead, we must pursue a tandem effort of growing those things that truly enhance our lives and protect the ecosystems our economy relies on—green energy; efficiency; conservation; restoration; restorative agriculture; integrated transportation systems; telecommuting; a sensible work-life balance—while simultaneously questioning and curtailing the excesses of our current economic paradigm—extractive industries; fossil fuels; disposable consumerism; etc etc.
Recessions are not the environmental antidote to economic growth any more than hangovers are an antidote to binge drinking. They are simply a symptom that we should heed as a warning sign, and as an inspiration to look for a more stable, rewarding and healthy path forward.