UCL Grand Challenges


A Global Economy That Works for People and the Planet – How Do We Get There?

Convening cross-disciplinary community of scholars and policy experts to explore concrete policy pathways towards net-zero economies.

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1 September 2021


Grant: Grand Challenges Special Initiatives—Climate Emergency
Year awarded: 2021-22
Amount awarded:  £4,842


  • Tom Pegram, Political Science
  • Nick Hughes, Bartlett School Environment, Energy & Resources

There is growing consensus that current economic systems are unsustainable. However, opinions differ sharply on appropriate policy responses. Can we transition towards green and resource-efficient economies that continue growing while decreasing environmental harm? Or does the prospect of environmental breakdown compel us to abandon growth-oriented economic and development strategies?

This project examined these questions by bringing together leading experts from academia, policy and practice for a workshop and public panel discussion on the role of economic growth in supporting socially and environmentally sustainable societies. It generated cross-disciplinary insights on future visions for a global economy that works for people and the planet, considering the plausibility of both “green growth” and “post-growth,” as well as possibilities for pragmatic engagement across these two perspectives.

The project involved an afternoon workshop, a public panel discussion, a student scenario exercise, as well as a range of ongoing activities to disseminate project outputs. The latter include an in-depth report which builds on the workshop discussions, recordings from the public event, and a series of commentaries and podcasts. To enable participation of international discussants and in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the workshop and public panel event were organised fully virtually. A scoping paper was circulated in advance to facilitate the discussion. The workshop has served to shed light on an increasingly prominent debate in research and policy, whilst establishing a network of diverse stakeholders representing a diversity of perspectives, geographies, and scholarly disciplines, with a view to facilitating continued collaboration and dialogue.

Students at a workshop sitting at desks

This project has strengthened ties between researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Resources (ISR), the Global Governance Institute (GGI), other institutions at UCL (e.g. Institute for Global Prosperity), in the UK (e.g. Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment), and beyond. The project team will be continuing collaborating across this network to further develop project outcomes, including through a peer-reviewed journal publication, and will also leverage the findings in other joint projects being pursued - for example, investigating how participatory democracy mechanisms, such as Citizen’s Assemblies, could deliver insights into what kind of economic system people would like to live in and the specific policies they might support.

Business-as-usual approaches to economic growth and human development are dangerously inadequate. Our future economies must respect environmental constraints while also providing minimum standards for social wellbeing. As countries around the world seek to stimulate struggling economies and respond to rising costs of living, we need a clearer sense of collective direction (“where are we going?”) and a better understanding of possible policy pathways (“how do we get there?”). This project has made an important contribution in this regard by encouraging productive engagement between “green growth” and “post-growth” perspectives, aimed at enabling discussion on actionable transition policies. Project outcomes relate to several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (including but not limited to SGDs 1, 8, 10, 12 and 13) and are of relevance to all pan-Grand Challenge themes. 

An important aspect of this project's impact lies in shifting the discussion on economic systems transformation beyond the empirical relationship between GDP, wellbeing and environmental sustainability, in a way that also considers political feasibility and governance challenges and can bring “green growth” and “post-growth” perspectives into conversation with each other. As time to address these challenges is running out, failing to engage constructively on concrete policy options makes it more likely that human economic activity will breach the natural limits of the planet, thereby threatening the achievement of all SDGs. Findings are summarised in the project's report.