Is global decoupling underway?

There are a few things that I hope I’m wrong about. Chief among them is climate change. It would be great if the sceptics turn out to be right and we have nothing to worry about after all. The gloating would be insufferable, but it would be a small price to pay for averting global catastrophe.

I’d also like to be wrong about economic growth. Emissions and economic growth have tracked quite closely in the past, with rising economic activity generally requiring more energy and materials. Thus growth has driven climate change. The only significant periods of decarbonisation anywhere in the world have come during recession.

The prevailing theory is that we can overcome this by decoupling emissions from economic activity. We can do this with renewable energy, efficiency, sustainable transport, and the materials recovery and zero waste practices of the circular economy. I’m on board with all of those things, and there is a growing number of countries posting falling emissions in tandem with a growing economy. Britain did it last year, and the World Resources Institute recently compiled this list:


This is good news, but we should be careful not to hail this as proof that growth and sustainability can co-exist after all. Towards the end of the article, Nate Aden points out that a “key factor in many countries is a structural shift of the economy away from emissions-intensive industry.” 9 out of 10 of them have seen industry decline as a percentage of the economy in that time.

So while these countries do show absolute cuts in emissions within their own borders, a lot of those emissions haven’t been eliminated. They have been displaced, outsourced to somebody else. Globally the emissions remain, and national strategies may not add up to a global solution.

But then we may be decoupling globally too. The IEA points out that emissions have more or less flatlined in the last couple of years, while the global economy has continued to grow:

co2 decoupling global

So perhaps we are at a turning point, where global emissions peak and begin to decline, whatever the economy does. I certainly hope so.

As always, there are two main concerns. The first is timing. Sustainable growth is theoretically possible, but it would take a transformation on a par with the industrial revolution. Can that be done in time to prevent runaway climate disruption? Secondly, it’s possible to forecast sustainable growth to 2030 or 2050, but infinitely into the future is a different matter. Eventually, as the IPCC has warned, you would get to the point where you would need a carbon negative economy – one where you are actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere in order to permit further growth.

Even the reports that keep getting cited as evidence that we can grow and decarbonise often hedge their bets. The New Climate Economy is top of that reference pile, and it says this:

The Commission estimates that at least 50% and – with broad and ambitious implementation –potentially up to 90% of the actions needed to get onto a 2°C pathway could be compatible with goals of boosting national development, equitable growth and broadly shared improvements in living standards.
In other words, even if you do everything they suggest, ongoing growth doesn’t completely square with 2 degrees of warming – and COP21 calls for us to pursue 1.5 degrees anyway.
So I think the jury’s still out on whether decoupling alone is a viable strategy for tackling climate change. Lifestyle change, choosing new definitions of wealth and progress beyond an infinite ‘more’, are still necessary.


  1. The problem is not with ‘decoupling’ but with growth, and growth is a function of our debt-based money system. Change the money system and growth can then be a function of genuine need, leaving us with the problem of decoupling money from oil – or getting rid of the ‘petrodollar’. In other words we still need to deal with our dysfunctional money system. When and how will we move to ‘solar-dollars’?

  2. Jeremy:
    When you compare necessary change commensurate with the project of the Industrial Revolution we realize the exceptional challenge a carbon neutral lifestyle is. To be alive at this time and defer wholesale action is our existential disgrace. Odd when humankind now has a universal project to cooperate on a heroic (and profitable) scale. It seems against our evolutionary pattern to go beyond our group behaviors but agree with you when you say we need to be, choosing new definitions of wealth and progress.

  3. And then there is population growth; UN forecasts are for continuing and very large increases in our numbers (even if the rate of increase slows down). Even the poorest breath out carbon dioxide, consume a little, cut wood so as to cook their food and construct shelter. The USA, with the highest per capita consumption is in the top ten for predicted population growth. And most people aspire to a ‘better’ standard of living. We might be able to decouple economic growth per head from fossil fuel consumption, but if the number of heads continues to rise, we still have a real problem.

    1. Yes, removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is quite slow and depends on natural processes. Concentrations in the atmosphere will lag well behind a fall in emissions. If we stopped all emissions tomorrow, it would take the best part of a century for emissions to fall back to pre-industrial levels.

  4. Newly published All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth report warns that industrial civilisation is currently on track to experience “an eventual collapse of production and living standards” in the next few decades if business-as-usual continues:

    View at

  5. This is all very positive and it is important to remember that if I had suggested these trends 5 years ago here I would have been told I was being over optimistic.

    But predicting disaster is a very human trait.

    1. I’m an optimist by nature, which is why I’ve reported this as good news and reasons to be hopeful.

      Globally, there is no trend yet, so we have to wait and see. And as I say in the post, it’s not about whether absolute decoupling is possible or impossible, but how fast it can happen.

      I will say more about the timing issue at some point, as that’s the crux of the matter really.

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