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Decoupling debunked: EEB report shows ‘green growth’ concept unrealistic

7 September 2019

Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? A new report by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)—an umbrella group of EU environmental organizations—shows that efforts to decouple economic growth from environmental harm, known as ‘green growth’, have not succeeded and are unlikely to succeed in their aim [4446].

The report, Decoupling debunked—Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability has been available online since July and will be officially launched in October in Brussels.

In recent decades, economic growth rose to become the leading measure of changes in prosperity and wellbeing. For that reason, governments have sought to maximize the growth of their gross domestic product (GDP), which tends to involve greater resource use and more pollution. As the climate crisis and environmental degradation worsened, policy-makers sought to square the circle of maintaining prosperity while reducing the environmental impact of economic activity by decoupling resource use from economic growth. This policy choice has become known as ‘green growth’. It is the underlying concept of the New Green Deal policies that have been emerging in a number of countries worldwide.

The validity of the ‘green growth’ discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures. Although decoupling is useful and necessary, the literature reviewed in the report shows that there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling currently happening. This is the case for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss for which decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or only locally. In most cases, decoupling is relative. When absolute decoupling occurs, it is observed only during rather short periods of time, concerning only certain resources or forms of impact, for specific locations, and with very small rates of mitigation. Hence, ‘green growth’ cannot reduce resource use on anywhere near the scale required to deal with global environmental breakdown and to keep global warming below the target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—concludes the report.

There are also several reasons to be skeptical about the occurrence of sufficient decoupling in the future. Each of them taken individually casts doubt on the possibility for sufficient decoupling and, thus, the feasibility of ‘green growth’. Considered all together, the hypothesis that decoupling will allow economic growth to continue without a rise in environmental pressures appears highly compromised, if not clearly unrealistic.

  1. Rising energy expenditures. When extracting a resource, cheaper options are generally used first, the extraction of remaining stocks then becoming a more resource- and energy-intensive process resulting in a rising total environmental degradation per unit of resource extracted.
  2. Rebound (Jevons) effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or totally compensated by a reallocation of saved resources and money to either more of the same consumption (e.g., using a fuel-efficient car more often), or other impactful consumptions (e.g., buying plane tickets for remote holidays with the money saved from fuel economies). It can also generate structural changes in the economy that induce higher consumption (e.g., more fuel-efficient cars reinforce a car-based transport system at the expense of greener alternatives, such as public transport and cycling).
  3. Problem shifting. Technological solutions to one environmental problem can create new ones and/or exacerbate others. For example, the production of private electric vehicles puts pressure on lithium, copper, and cobalt resources; the production of biofuel raises concerns about land use; while nuclear power generation produces nuclear risks and logistic concerns regarding nuclear waste disposal.
  4. The underestimated impact of services. The service economy can only exist on top of the material economy, not instead of it. Services have a significant footprint that often adds to, rather than substitute, that of goods.
  5. Limited potential of recycling. Recycling rates are currently low and only slowly increasing, and recycling processes generally still require a significant amount of energy and virgin raw materials. Most importantly, recycling is strictly limited in its ability to provide resources for an expanding material economy.
  6. Insufficient and inappropriate technological change. Technological progress is not targeting the factors of production that matter for ecological sustainability and not leading to the type of innovations that reduce environmental pressures; it is not disruptive enough as it fails to displace other undesirable technologies; and it is not in itself fast enough to enable a sufficient decoupling.
  7. Cost shifting. What has been observed and termed as decoupling in some local cases was generally only apparent decoupling resulting mostly from an externalization of environmental impact from high-consumption to low-consumption countries enabled by international trade. Accounting on a footprint basis reveals a much less optimistic picture and casts further doubt on the possibility of a consistent decoupling in the future.

The EEB, headquartered in Brussels, is the largest network of environmental citizens’ organizations in Europe. The group consists of around 150 member organizations in more than 30 countries, representing some 30 million individual members and supporters.

Source: EEB