UCC * [THE ULTIMATE COST OF CARBON] Published by geophysicist David Archer et al in 2020, this study reveals the truth we all have known all along, that the Global North has been thriving at everyone else’s including all other life on the planet’s expense. They aren’t even nearly breaking even. As Walter Rodney put it, Europe is not developing Africa, it is Africa, and by extension the entire Global South which has been developing Europe since before the Christian Age. This model is of special interest in that it is the result of a collaboration of climate scientists and two philosophers. Here the extent of climate impacts of industrialization are explored to their limit, and the results are stunning. Ultimate costs of carbon range from $2.7k to $200k per ton of CO2-eq for various assumptions about the magnitude and longevity of economic impacts, with a best-estimate value of about $27k per ton of CO2-eq.

The Vast Obscurity Beneath The Upwards Arrow

(Economic growth vs. the resulting social cost of CO2 emissions)
A project by DISNOVATION.ORG & Baruch Gottlieb, programmed by Jerome Saint-Clair, commissioned by The Photographers' Gallery, 2021

This artistic provocation seeks to highlight the planetary processes that are obscured in the shadow of GDP economic growth, such as fossil fuel combustion and the social costs of CO2 emissions. ShadowGrowth prototypes strategies that can challenge or replace the iconic GDP growth curve to better address today's urgent ecosystemic challenges. ShadowGrowth confronts conventional GDP with the inherent "social cost of carbon emissions”, a cost which the most ethical estimates situate between $2.7k to $200k per ton of CO2-eq in long-term damage to society (Archer et al., “The Ultimate Cost of Carbon”, 2020) [*].

Download the project diagrams as a PDF:

Concept Overview (Video 4'34"):

Expert Interview (Video 13'):

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Essay Structure

ShadowGrowth — The Essay [GDP & The Social Cost of CO2 Emissions]
[1] Models Create Shadows
[2] Gross, Domestic, Product
[3] Imag[in]ing Growth
[4] Fossil Fueled Growth
[5] Carbon Shadows
[6] The Upward Arrow
[7] Arrows & Targets
[8] The Shadow Beneath The Upwards Arrow
[9] Images Create Shadows
[10] Shadow Growth
[***] Further Readings

ShadowGrowth — The Model [About The 3 Lenses]
[*] Foreword
[lens 1] ‘Obama/Trump/Biden’ Model
[lens 2] ‘IPCC 2017 Report’ Model
[lens 3] ‘The Ultimate Cost Of Carbon’ Model

ShadowGrowth — The Essay
GDP & The Social Costs of CO2 Emissions


GDP and Social Cost of Carbon -- Global North

We can understand representations of economic growth as “photographs” of the economy. Because they are synthesized from data, economic data visualizations have the same status as images of other invisible phenomena like viruses or bosons. Like an X-ray, such images can be read by specialists, who infer from learning and experience, the vital data missing from the visual representation. But as it is common to arbitrarily fill in missing or unknown information with associations and assumptions from one’s own understanding or imagination, such images can be very deceptive. The Shadow Growth project attempts to address this information gap by virtually submitting economic representations to “real world” conditions, such as lighting and physics, adding dimensionality to the abstractions. In the prototype we present in this project we use the “light” of various studies that attempt to estimate the social costs missing from GDP[1] calculations. This critical light reproduces the shadows normally hidden behind conventionally flat economic representations like GDP. Surprisingly, once the “social costs” are projected into the model, we can see that the triumphant story of growth is largely counterbalanced by the shadow of damages it has incurred, and that addressing these harms will likely also consummately curtail economic growth.



Since its introduction as an instrument to monitor and plan the wartime economy in the 1940’s, GDP has become widely used as a measure of economic progress and development. As one of the few terms from economics that is used popularly in the press and every-day conversations, GDP is associated with productivity and growth, all mainly positively laden terms in public opinion. However, as elaborated in the Shadow Growth projections, GDP, like any economic indicator, cannot possibly tell the whole story of the relative health of an economy. As an indicator that is often used to stand in for the entire economy, GDP casts a vast shadow that obscures the material ramifications of economic growth on the planet. The initiator of the contemporary use of the term, Simon Kuznets[2] even warned that GDP should not be used as an indicator of public welfare. Despite general consensus today among economists that GDP as an indicator is insufficient on its own and must be complemented by several other methods of reckoning, it persists in public discourse as an indicator of economic health, and is weaponized to obscure alternatives to the prevalent financialized growth ideology.


Historical changes in energy resources have essentially always been energy additions, not transitions.

The “Growth Imperative” is a central credo of our time. Growth itself is not necessarily destructive but the prevalence of financialized, debt-driven and accelerated forms of growth have detached capitalist productivity from serving the needs of populations, generating absurd excesses of overproduction and underproduction. Due to an under-studied disconnect between financial value growth and growth in productive activity. GDP growth figures are still universally heralded as harbingers for general prosperity, but productivity indexed by GDP’s productivity does not factor in environmental damage, waste, poverty and other negative externalities. These harms and costs must be borne by people both directly and indirectly impacted, both now and into the future. In this way the representation of GDP growth has a vexed legacy. So much food is produced that it must be destroyed, yet millions do not have enough to eat. Housing is built which lies empty for years, though millions do not have affordable places to live. Yet GDP continues to rise, how?


Link between growth and energy consumption.

Historical surveys by geologist Jean-Marc Jancovici[3] demonstrate that GDP growth closely tracks energy consumption; more energy, more growth, regardless of how efficient or wasteful its applications are. The millions of years of planetary work required to produce such readily available and energy-rich materials as fossil fuels are taken for granted in calculations of added value of industrial production. If we were to factor in the irreplaceable geological and biospheric work of the planet into our calculations of growth we could see how much the claims of increased human productivity through technological progress have been inflated by ignoring increased energy consumption and intensification of resource extraction. As an index of human progress, the GDP story is incomplete. Shadow Growth responds by applying models from three relevant research papers[4] to project a Carbon or CO2 “shadow” missing from conventional GDP calculations. Integrating the shadow into the flat representation of GDP growth, Shadow Growth aims to reveal GDP growth’s hidden legacy and the extent of the challenge to address this.



The social costs of carbon (CO2) are reckonings of the unexamined biospheric and social processes that are essential to, but not factored into, the figure of GDP growth. The Shadow Growth counter-visualisation experiments are “materialising the photograph” of GDP growth into an imaginary 3D space which compels an account of how the subject of growth is illuminated and what shadows it casts. It aims to partially complete the story of GDP by projecting its carbon shadow. Shadow Growth endeavours to contribute to and nurture exchanges towards a more comprehensive understanding of the complex challenges humanity faces today, and the myriad of other shadows beneath each GDP arrow.



The concept of economic growth is represented first and foremost by a rising arrow; often an arrow with a jagged dip or two in the middle. The message of this image is clear, we are on an inexorable trajectory towards general prosperity, towards something better; the sky’s the limit! The jagged dips encourage us to be patient and practice forbearance with the unavoidable setbacks along the way.Anyone can associate that image with their life’s trajectory, starting from the ground and gradually rising to realise their aspirations. This is how images of the non-image-able work. We cannot “see” growth so we use an image that does not represent growth but rather provides us with an opportunity to bring the notion of growth down to human sense of scale and epistemology. The temporality of growth is shrunk and flattened to the time it takes to glance at a chart, but the real temporality is that of the millions of years of planetary symbiogenesis that both produced ourselves and the biospheric affordances, from microorganisms to plants, animals and concentrated into fuels, that we depend upon for energy.


Beyond a certain threshold, growth no longer correlates with an increase in well-being.

If, according to the latest consensus of the IPCC, we must radically cut fossil fuel consumption in the near term, this will necessarily result in a lowering of GDP and correspondingly living standards unless we can supplement the lost energy from fossil fuel with something else. Though GDP growth has not been shown to correspond to happier populations (see chart), any dramatic drop in economic activity will result in shortages and price increases, historically producing widespread social unrest.[5] As indicated above, GDP historically tracks energy consumption. Reducing energy consumption therefore will likely lower GDP. GDP’s shadow may be a good indicator to why happiness has not increased with GDP growth. Understanding productivity differently, the political challenge will be to ensure good living standards for everybody through the transition away from carbon fuels.



Our positive and hopeful associations with growth imagery play on our weaknesses. Human beings do everything to make sense of the world, and, as far as possible, to make hopeful sense of the world. But the full story of the rising arrow must include its shadow. Increased shareholder value no longer means better conditions for the generality, quite the opposite. The ever more frequent pump-and-dump economic crashes of late-stage capitalism functions by pneumatically pumping value from the public sector, that includes the assumed reproductive contributions of the biosphere, into private hands. A rising arrow not only means more consumption of energy, it means pushing the economy to breaking points whereupon any damages will have to be borne by the public. “Negative externalities” is a category in economics where the costs related to harms, such as environmental degradation, pollution, illness are not borne by the producer of the harms. According to the strategy of “disaster capitalism” destruction of lives and livelihoods can be as profitable as their reproduction and this way it appears as a positive value on the GDP spreadsheet. Similarly, as investors profit by extracting more productivity from workers and paying them less, the upwards arrow we see on the news is bad news for both the biosphere and for the international proletariat.



“Images hide what they are meant to represent” — Vilém Flusser.[6] This is a dialectic we increasingly have to navigate as more and more of the information about the world comes in visual translations of “invisible” data. Every scientific measurement is a gross simplification of the temporally and materially rich, “Thick Present” as Donna Haraway[7] called it. The data must be reconstituted into images for us to understand it. A vital aspect of this project is to critically explore the instrumental function of images, extending from scientific discourse into the public realm of political culture. Today’s thriving image culture online proves Vilém Flusser’s contention that, in the electronic age, when communication takes place at the speed of light “out of scope” of conventional human-scale-based epistemology, rational, logical, causal, literate discourse is no longer adequate to grasp and contend with our condition. We need to use what he called “technical images”. Such images create publics, they bring us together in dialogues where we can help each other grapple with the pressing challenges we confront. To reappropriate the legendary statistician George Box’s aphorism about model-building, we could argue that “all images are fake, but some are useful”.[8]



In a recent article, Umair Haque[9] noted how rapidly rising steel prices herald the end of carbon freeloading by industry and ensuing shortages for both consumers and producers. One of the main lessons from the Social Cost of Carbon papers is that the economic growth and high living standards that characterized the post-war period can be attributed to increased energy consumption, particularly fossil fuels, which are extracted from the earth for free. With global warming, climate disaster, and the sixth extinction, the planet is issuing a long overdue invoice. But who can pay? And more importantly, where is the planet’s bank account? There is strictly no capitalist relation between the earth and its inhabitants, there is no way to pay Nature back for what it provides. The shadow of growth cannot be consummately addressed monetarily. As an artistic provocation, Shadow Growth reveals the delusion of growth we have been living in for decades. The CO2 shadow projections are to be understood as use cases or prototypes for how to open the field of public debate for a reevaluation of the legacy of growth, helping us encounter its many shadows, including biodiversity depletion, rising sea levels, and other long term damages. Part of confronting the global climate crisis requires completely re-evaluating the ways we have understood our world. An an-anthropocentric ecology and economy reveals us as bit players flailing vainly in a grand cosmic material flux. Art plays a crucial role here. In a world where images do not only inform but are also active in social praxis, new forms of proactive data aesthetics are required to contest for the dominant narratives of how to ensure the best outcomes for all.



ShadowGrowth — The Model 
About The Three Lenses


As governments attempt to address the challenge to the growth imperative posed by climate change and global warming, the quantification problem arises again. Under capitalism, every adjustment to commercial behaviour must be understood in terms of affecting the behaviour of “free” capitalists. As such the only instruments of coercion officially available to governments are fees and taxes. The social cost of carbon (SCC) thus becomes an essential calculation in the limited arsenal which can be employed to modify the productive behaviours of capital. Carbon credits, carbon taxes, all manner of schemes have been elaborated which attempt to produce the desired outcome through the functioning of the market. Leaving aside the fact that all the so-called market-solutions are intrinsically disaster-capitalist and therefore designed to fail in favour of capital, even the most conservative estimate of the social cost of carbon emissions casts into disrepute the growth claims of the past 70 years of capitalocracy. As we can see through the 3 “lenses'', capitalism’s claim to being the most efficient purveyor of human needs is fraudulent. Looking at growth through the lenses of carbon attributions reveals the shadows that the propagandistic figure of growth casts. The light of attention factored into the consumption of the growth imagery produces the shadow of growth which completes the “photograph”.

Trump is an outlier in this triumvirate, as the SCC (a term whose use became prevalent during the Obama era) dropped from around 50$/t under Obama to 1-7$/t during Trump, and more recently, back to 51$/t under Biden. But this lens projects the range of what the US understands as a realistic reckoning of SCC. Recently, the Nobel Prize laureate economist Joseph Stieglitz publicly criticised the Biden administration and recommended doubling the SCC to 100$/t or more.[10] This evaluation was echoed by Michael Crenshaw, former Chief economist in Obama’s government, who in 2020 set the SCC at a minimum of 125$/t.[11] Climate policy in the US is of course business-first, so one prerequisite of the SCC is to be low enough not to risk the “outsourcing” of production to countries with less punitive pollution policy. This lens is provided as an indication of a bare-minimum reckoning.

The proposed SCC in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is calculated with a view to deterrence, attempting to determine the appropriate penalties for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would coerce producers to produce less. As such the model has different calculations for various benchmarks, for example 1.5°C+ or 2°C+, all with regard to maintaining a certain level of economic growth, especially in developing countries. The IPCC study is extremely thorough but only envisages prices for climate harms as the maximum effective to coerce producers and the minimum needed to ensure growth. The authors of the 2017 report admit that though what they call the more “stringent” (higher) assessments of the Cost of Carbon are more accurate, their interest is not in accuracy per se, but in what they consider effective, i.e. enforceable, climate policy. It is therefore much more of concern how to ensure compliance on governmental or international levels and how to enforce payments to alleviate or offset GHG emissions harms. The IPCC estimates that ramping up carbon taxes to between $135 and $5,500 per ton of CO2-eq by 2030 is needed to achieve zero emissions by mid-century.

Published by geophysicist David Archer and colleagues in 2020, this study reveals the truth we have known all along, that the dangers of climate change are much deeper and more profound than economic considerations would imply. Global warming will last thousands of times longer than we live, but if humans lived forever, we would consider the costs of climate change to be thousands of times worse. Getting rid of economic discounting, and accounting for uncertainties in the geophysics and (especially) the economics, the authors found ultimate costs of carbon ranging from $2.7k to $200k per ton of CO2-eq, thousands of times higher than the (discounted) social cost of carbon. Economic discounting is a fine way to describe how money flows in our society, but when you use it to find the “optimal path” for navigating climate change, it throws out any consideration of what happens to thousands of future generations.



[1] Gross domestic product (GDP) is a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period.

[2] The modern concept of GDP was first developed by Simon Kuznets for a US Congress report in 1934. In this report, Kuznets warned against its use as a measure of welfare en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_domestic_product

[3] jancovici.com/en/energy-transition/energy-and-us/what-is-energy-actually/

[4] I: D. Archer - The Ultimate Cost of Carbon, II: IPCC 2017 Report, chapter 2, page 152, III: Crenshaw, M & Carleton, T. (2020) Working Paper

[5] See Global Riot Epidemic Due to Demise of Cheap Fossil Fuels Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, United Nations University 2014. Also: A New World The Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation, Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation © IRENA 2019 p.68

[6] Vilém Flusser (1984). “Towards a Philosophy of Photography”

[7] As Donna Haraway describes it, the thick present is “a tentacular web of troubling relations that matter now.” — Donna J Haraway, 2016, Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene.

[8] "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful." — Box, George E. P.; Norman R. Draper (1987). Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces, p. 424, Wiley.

[9] Umair Haque, Why Everything is Suddenly Getting More Expensive — eand.co/why-everything-is-suddenly-getting-more-expensive-and-why-it-wont-stop-cbf5a091f403

[10] Stern, N. & Stiglitz, J.E. (2021) The Social Cost of Carbon, Risk, Distribution, Market Failures: An Alternative Approach, Working Paper 28472 www.nber.org/papers/w28472

[11] Crenshaw, M & Carleton, T. (2020) Working Paper · NO. 2021-04 Updating the United States Government’s Social Cost of Carbon, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)

[12] IPCC 2017 Report, chapter 2, page 152, “Estimates for a Below-1.5°C pathway range from 135–6050 USD2010 tCO2-eq−1 in 2030, 245–14300 USD2010 tCO2-eq−1 in 2050, 420–19300 USD2010 tCO2-eq−1 in 2070 and 690–30100 USD2010 tCO2-eq−1 in 2100.

[13] D. Archer - The Ultimate Cost of Carbon, Ultimate costs of C range from $10k to $750k per ton for various assumptions about the magnitude and longevity of economic impacts, with a best-estimate value of about $100k per ton of C.