environment growth sustainability

The challenge of absolute decoupling

One of the compromises between the environment and politics is the term ‘green growth’. It’s always turning up in government papers or the documents like the UN’s recent Rio +20 agreement. Green growth is an attempt to turn big environmental problems into opportunities for greater prosperity. If you get it right, you can carry on growing the economy while solving the environmental crisis at the same time… in theory.

For that to happen, you need decoupling. So far, growing economies also have growing consumption of materials, growing energy needs and growing CO2 footprints. To grow without damaging the environment, you need to ‘decouple’ the economy from its ecological impact. You can do that by moving from heavy industry to services, using renewable energy, recycling or increasing energy and material efficiency.

Of course if the economy is growing, then your efficiency gains have to happen faster than the growth, otherwise the new growth just swallows up any gains. If the economy is 10% more efficient than it was a decade ago, but is also 10% larger, then you’re running to stand still. That’s the difference between absolute decoupling and relative decoupling. To actually reduce CO2, energy and material use, the actual amounts we use need to fall in absolute terms.

The graph at the top shows the challenge. (It’s from SERI’s recent report on materials consumption here).  The world’s countries are plotted with growth in GDP along the horizontal axis and growth in materials consumption on the vertical axis. If a country falls along the horizontal line in the middle, then its material use and GDP have grown at exactly the same rate. Anywhere below the horizontal shows that you’re making some efficiency gains, but that your overall growth is running ahead of them. Only those countries that are in the blue sector at the bottom have achieved true decoupling, reducing the amount of timber, fossil fuels and metals that they use in absolute terms.

The first thing to notice is that the right hand side of that blue segment is empty – absolute decoupling can only happen in low-growth countries. The other thing to remember is that even those consumer economies that did see absolute decoupling – Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany and the UK – still might not have achieved the holy grail of green growth. They may have simply displaced their materials use elsewhere by importing things they used to produce themselves. A quick glance at imports from China will tell you where materials consumption in Britain went.

We’re going to hear a lot more about green growth, and about decoupling. It’s harder than it looks, and in the long term it’s impossible. Ultimately, we’re not going to get anywhere until we start questioning growth itself.


  1. A very interesting look at growth there Jeremy. I just happen to also receive a comprehensive blog/thesis on de-growth and oil consumption that follows on very well from your article – http://simplicitycollective.com/degrowth-expensive-oil-and-the-new-economics-of-energy
    It is from the Simplicity Collective and looking at how we have to ‘grow’ with a no-growth or de-growth economy that isn’t dependent on oil and exponential growth and exponential debt growth as well.

    1. Aha, I have the latest from the Simplicity Collective on my desktop to read on the train home tonight! Looking forward to seeing what they have to say, they’re a smart bunch.

  2. See Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without growth” for a longer and more detailed exposition of this thesis. He comes to the conclusion that not only has absolute decoupling never happened in a developed economy – it can’t

    1. I was going to recommend this book too. I know that Jeremy has already written about it a number of times, but it’s probably worth mentioning again on this thread.

      There are also other considerations. For instance, let us imagine for a moment that the entire global economy manages to get into the happy light blue – a truly remarkable and quite unlikely outcome, but let’s pretend.

      First, the *rate* of decoupling is key. We are *already* exceeding the ability of the planet to replenish resources and so slowly easing down our demands on ecosystems isn’t going to cut it.

      Second, slower consumption will still ultimately exhaust non-renewable resources. Even if we managed to get back below planetary limits for renewable resources like wood or fish, this still leaves non-renewable resources. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is all well and good, but as time goes on, the low-hanging fruit is already picked and the energy, expense and likely damage increase for any further exploitation (as we’re already seeing in deepwater, Arctic and non-conventional drilling operations). Fossil groundwater in much of Saudi Arabia is now basically depleted after just a few decades of intensively irrigated wheat production. Slowing their consumption of wheat per unit of GDP won’t particularly help with this problem, which now means more crops needed elsewhere.

      Third, even if we manage to achieve absolute decoupling, even if this is fast enough to get below planetary boundaries before ecological damage is so severe as to prevent further GDP growth and even if we quickly wean ourselves of all non-renewable resources, there is still a yet more fundamental theoretical problem, explained in more detail here. In short: continued growth of population will reach a limit, continued growth of energy will reach a limit (some fascinating details in the discussion here) and so with fixed population and fixed energy but growing GDP, energy will occupy an ever smaller portion of GDP, until it becomes small enough to be arbitrarily cheap – “But if energy became arbitrarily cheap, someone could buy all of it, and suddenly the activities that comprise the economy would grind to a halt.”

      Growth is for babies (infinite growth is for tumour cells). Let us be grown ups.

      1. PS I’ve just realised that the graph does indeed include imports and exports,* and so those economies in the blue have indeed achieved a limited degree of decoupling. Nonetheless, none of them have gone beyond very modest declines in material consumption (see my first point above).

        *”Domestic Material Consumption (DMC) is defined as the total amount of materials directly used in an economy and calculated as extraction plus imports minus exports” (p.13)

        1. It includes the imports themselves, but not the resources used to make those imports. The materials footprint of our goods, which can often be huge, stays with the producing country. The UK looks like it has reduced its material usage, but our throwaway culture says otherwise and it’s highly unlikely that our indirect consumption has fallen very far.

          1. Ah, I see. So if (for instance), a few thousand tonnes of water were used to make one tonne of electronics imported into the UK, then only one tonne would be added to the UK total, not the thousands of tonnes it actually cost.

  3. Question growth and you question the entire economic system which is predicated on this growth. The good news is that it has little to do with standards of living beyond a certain point and even less to do with quality of life.

    1. I was about to make a similar point, then noticed your comment Henry.

      We need to question the purpose of growth. Why do politicians focus on growth above all else? Is it a desire to achieve equality? Are they trying to provide increasing wealth for their citizens? Or is it part of an economic system that demands winners and losers to keep us all motivated to strive towards \”winning\” by working hard and keeping our heads down as corporations and their lackeys (the governments) take over the planet?

      Jeremy, it would be good to know what you think a world without wealth would look like. Are there steady state economies with a vibrant (low carbon) culture and happy residents?

  4. Sounds like yet another ‘red herring’ to avoid the truth, and there may be some good news about it, but all the time it continues many suffer now and later. Perhaps the talking helps? (Sorry to sound pessimistic but I feel the need to add the unsaid).

  5. Let me try and sketch what a ‘growthist’ response to this post would look like: primarily, that you must break DMC down into its components and prioritise decoupling the most urgent. So you focus on carbon, with energy efficiency, renewables and all the rest, and lots of people seem to think that decoupling really is possible there.

    Then you look at what non-renewable resources are most squeezed, and focus on cutting use there – that would be water and food at this point, and some rare metals.

    Then carrying on down the curve. All the while getting more and more efficient at using each resource, introducing recycling where possible, etc.

    Does this allow you infinite growth? No. But it does seem feasible that it could allow for another century or so of growth, getting us through the deadly 9 billion phase and into the period of population decline in the latter half of this century. At which point you can let go of GDP growth, and increasing resource use, while retaining growth in GDP per capita. All without having to re-structure the entire world’s politics and economics to do without growth.

    Thoughts, anyone? Water is probably the biggest issue, but desalination costs are coming down.

    1. Yes, it would allow for further growth in theory, although I think a century may be a little optimistic. In practice, the efficiency gains you would need to keep ahead of growth would be unprecedented. If you wanted to grow the economy by 2% a year, you’d need efficiency of more than 2%, year on year, indefinitely. Not really possible – or at least, it’s not been done. I don’t remember the exact figures off the top of my head, but you could look up the NEF report ‘growth isn’t possible’, or Tim Jackson’s ‘prosperity without growth’ for the detail of just what the challenge of decoupling actually means.

      1. Jeremy,

        Thanks for responding to my barrage of comments last week, and sorry for taking time to respond.

        Here we have the nub of our disagreement. The scale of the increase in carbon productivity – the amount of CO2e emitted for each £ of economic activity – required will indeed be very large if economic growth is to continue. McKinsey’s 2008 report (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi/research/natural_resources/the_carbon_productivity_challenge), which I urge you to read if you haven’t, identifies the necessary improvement as an increase in carbon productivity of a factor of ten. (That’s for 450ppm.)

        They argue, though, that this is possible at relatively low cost, with current existing or on-the-way technologies (i.e. CCS is counted, but not fusion or anything more esoteric.)

        How on earth can such rapid improvements be possible? The trick is to combine every possible approach:

        *Energy efficiency, insulation etc
        *Electrification of transport
        *Reduction in unnecessary transport, though that’s quite a small part numerically
        *Renewable energy
        *There’s a bridge role for natural gas I think.

        What I find so troubling about this site is that you have based your entire philosophy on the starting point that this level of carbon productivity increase cannot be achieved, but most experts who have looked directly at the question say it can. And, frankly, they have numbers, and you don’t.

        You’re not alone in this. I’m halfway through The End of Growth and though Heinberg makes a convincing case for the idea that growth can’t go on forever, I find his case that we’re at the point of no more growth now isn’t really supported by that much evidence. (I haven’t read Tim Jackson yet, but I fear the same will happen.)

        You say this kind of productivity increase can’t be done because it hasn’t been done. But that’s not a fair test. Those who believe growth plus 450ppm is possible acknowledge that it will take a vast overhaul of the economy and of society. But it’s vastly less of a disruption that getting rid of growth would entail.

        So my question to you is: do you know with confidence that the McKiney/Stern/Joe Romm model is wrong? Can you produce any evidence?

        Or is this more a gut instinct thing, it just doesn’t seem possible?

        Or is it that deep down, you’re primarily instinctively uncomfortable with Western wealth from a moral perspective, and the fact of environmental unsustainability is just sort of an extra reason to oppose it?


  6. Thanks for the link to the McKinsey report, I’ve bookmarked it for reading, but there are already a couple of problems with their approach right from the information page. For starters, they assume 500ppm. This is more generous than most, and considerably further ahead than the 350ppm that I think gives us a better chance.

    Even at 500ppm, they say the effort needed is equivalent to the change in productivity seen in the Industrial Revolution, only carried out in a third of the time.

    So before we get carried away saying that growth is possible alongside de-carbonisation, how about broaching the taboo subject and asking how much easier it would be if we laid aside the need to grow in countries that are already wealthy?

    Even if the McKinsey plan were correct in its assumptions and carried out to the letter, we get to 2050 – but we still want more growth. Can we really do it all again, another Industrial Revolution, to generate the efficiencies needed to continue growing? There are inherent limits to efficiency, that’s just a matter of physics.

    Yes, I have numbers. Jackson has them, page 79 of Prosperity Without Growth if you want a shortcut. More detailed calculations and models in NEF’s report Growth Isn’t Possible.

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