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EEA: Economic growth linked to increasing resource use and emissions

12 January 2021

The European Environment Agency (EEA) released a briefing titled Growth without economic growth [5010], which broadens the sustainability debate and explores alternative ways of thinking about growth and progress. The document questions the idea that decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts—a key assumption underlying the European Green Deal—can be achieved at the global scale.

“The ongoing ‘Great Acceleration’ in loss of biodiversity, climate change, pollution and loss of natural capital is tightly coupled to economic activities and economic growth,” said the EEA. The agency believes that “human civilization is currently profoundly unsustainable” and yet full decoupling of economic growth and resource consumption may not be possible. Therefore, societies need to rethink what is meant by growth and progress and their meaning for global sustainability. If there are limits to economic growth and to the current trajectory, “plan B to achieve sustainability is to innovate lifestyles, communities and societies that consume less”.

The existing body of literature, including the comprehensive 2019 report by the EEB [4446] and other sources, shows that globally, growth has not been decoupled from resource consumption and environmental pressures and is not likely to become so. The global material footprint (a consumption-based indicator of resource use), gross domestic product (GDP) and GHG emissions have increased rapidly over time, and strongly correlate, Figure 1.

[SVG image]
Figure 1. Relative change in main global economic and environmental indicators, 1970-2018

(Adapted from EEA [5010])

Circular economy policies that aim to reuse and recycle materials within the economy are often advocated as a means to decouple economic growth from resource use. The concept of ‘circular economy’, however, is a socio-technical ‘imaginary’ that has a limited potential for sustainability, said the EEA. While recycling rates of many materials can and should be increased, overall, recyclable material remains a meager portion of material throughput.

The low potential for circularity is because a very large share of primary material throughput is composed of (1) energy carriers, which are degraded through use as explained by the laws of thermodynamics and cannot be recycled, and (2) construction materials, which are added to the building stock, which is recycled over much longer periods. The EEA interprets this phenomenon in the light of Tainter’s (1988) study of the collapse of complex societies: as complexity increases, there are diminishing marginal returns on improvements in problem-solving; hence, improvements at the local scale have a very small impact on the overall system. Moreover, advanced societies require high throughputs of energy and materials to maintain their organizational complexity.

In this context, one of the key messages of the EEA document is that “the European Green Deal and other political initiatives for a sustainable future require not only technological change but also changes in consumption and social practices”.

Source: EEA