SOAS University of London

Department of Economics

Limits to Growth? (PG)

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Term 2

This module brings students to the frontiers of the economic debate about ‘sustainable growth and development’, which centres around more resource efficient, cleaner production and consumption. Opinions about what policies bring about sustainable and in particular climate change mitigating growth differ widely – from simple taxes on carbon emissions to proposals for abandoning the pursuit of output growth altogether. This module connects a critical study of these policy proposals with the underlying theoretical debate in growth economics between proponents of ‘green growth’ and ‘degrowth’ as well as a rigorous assessment of the empirical evidence. After a historical introduction to the debate about ‘limits to growth’ and ‘sustainable development’ since the 1970s and a primer on the biophysical importance of resources and energy for economic activity, the module proceeds in three blocks. Block A familiarises students with the mainly neoclassical theory prescribing green growth abetted by market failure corrections. Block B surveys mainly post-Keynesian and neo-Ricardian ecological (macro)economics, which favours more radical policy proposals including ‘degrowth’ and also addresses distributional concerns. Policies derived from these theories that prescribe energy and material efficiency or a transition to carbon-free technologies are presented alongside both blocks. Block C uses both theoretical views to critically analyse the current state of the climate change debate notably after the 2015 Paris conference, and understand the theoretical and empirical bases of proposed climate policy and therefore the preconditions needed for its success. Throughout, the module emphasises the connection between theory and policy, and the challenges arising from climate policy for developing countries, preparing students to intervene in a deeply informed and critical manner in this topical debate.

Students pursuing a degree external to the Department of Economics should contact the convenor for approval to take this module.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:
  • Define and critically discuss the notion of sustainable growth and development
  • Explain the crucial nature of energy and resources in economic activity, and the challenges these pose for sustainable growth
  • Distinguish 'neoclassical' and 'ecological' economic analyses of the role of energy and resources in economic growth and their principal policy conclusions
  • Identify and critically discuss the theoretical underpinnings of the opposed policy positions in the ongoing 'green growth' vs 'degrowth' debate
  • Analyse the applicability to middle and low-income countries of policies based on economics that reflects the situation of high-income countries

Method of assessment

Assessment weighting: One policy memo (20%), one seminar presentation (20%), one essay outline (10%), one essay of 3,000 words (50%). Resubmission of coursework regulations do not apply to the seminar presentation.

Suggested reading

Indicative reading for the two theory parts is Eriksson, C. 2013. Economic Growth and the Environment. Oxford; Marglin, S. 1984. Growth, Distribution and Prices. Harvard; Hess. P. 2013. Economic Growth and Sustainable Development. Routledge; Hall, C. and K. Klitgaard. 2012. Energy and the Wealth of Nations. Springer; Nordhaus, W. 1994. Managing the Global Commons. MIT Press; various recent articles on growth models notably in Ecological Economics.

Indicative reading for the policy analysis are current editions of various reports of mainly international bodies, e.g. the IPCC, IEA and IRENA, and governments, e.g. the (technical reports  behind the) INDC submissions of countries ahead of the Paris conference.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules