For years, financial institutions and governments have been focused on the idea of ‘decoupling’ GDP growth from resource use. This has been driven by the recognition that to stay within the ‘safe limit’ of 2 degrees Celsius, we have to dramatically reduce our material consumption.
The goal is to keep our economies growing to sustain prosperity while reducing our actual resource use and material footprint. The bottom line is that without reducing our overall use of planetary resources, we are bound to cross the line into a dangerous climate. But is doing so consistent with the continued increase in economic growth?
The conventional belief has been most recently articulated in a recent book, More From Less, by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist the MIT Sloan School of Management. Financial and other data, McAfee argued, shows we can actually easily reduce our material footprint while continuing to grow our economies in a win-win scenario.
But new scientific analysis by a group of systems scientists and economists proves that this contention is completely groundless. Far from being based on hard evidence, this sort of claim is instead derived from egregious selective readings of statistical data.
Decades of research on material flows confirm that there are “no realistic scenarios” for such decoupling going forward.
Combing through 179 of the best studies of this issue from 1990 to 2019 further reveals “no evidence” that any meaningful decoupling has ever taken place.
“The goal of decoupling rests partly on faith”, conclude the team from the BIOS Research Institute in Finland, an independent multidisciplinary scientific organisation studying the effects of environmental and resource factors on economy, politics, and culture. The BIOS team have previously advised the UN Global Sustainable Development Report on the risks of emerging biophysical limits to endless economic growth.
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Their new analysis comes in the form of two peer-reviewed research papers published in June.
Narrowing the window
The first, published in Environmental Politics, points out that currently the environmental impacts and resource use of many national economies is unsustainable. The only way the economy can grow or even remain at the present level is to ‘decouple’ it from these environmental impacts, thus staying within the planetary boundaries of resource use.
The problem is that many of the accounting measures used to conclude that decoupling is happening tend to systematically obscure or exclude critical data.
“The existence of decoupling in a bounded geographical area or economic sector does not, as such, mean that decoupling is happening in a wider context,” argue the BIOS team.
“Well-known and widely studied phenomena such as Jevons’ paradox, rebound, and outsourcing show that sectoral and local decoupling can co-exist with and even depend on increased environmental impact and increased resource use outside the analysed geographical or sectoral unit.”
Much of the data marshalled by McAfee and others, for instance, represents cherry-picking from a narrow window that focuses on a particular region or sector without acknowledging the wider impacts outside that region or sector.
As a result, much deeper environmental impacts of resource use can often be excluded from the analysis simply by narrowing down that data-focus.
In other words, just because we are dramatically improving efficiencies in technology production, does not mean we are actually reducing our real-world material footprint. In fact, often greater efficiencies can even translate into heightened environmental impacts because they enable greater levels of consumption at lower cost.
Within a wider capitalist system incentivising maximisation of profits, this can actually accelerate resource consumption overall. But by narrowing their ‘accounting’ lens, authors like McAfee can make a case that resource consumption is declining, by basically ignoring the relevant data and focusing only on the efficiency data that suits the narrative.
The BIOS authors write that even while decoupling can seem to occur in certain geographies or sectors, it “can co-exist with (and even depend on) increased negative impacts or resource use outside the analysed sector or area.” Therefore, being optimistic about such limited decoupling does not justify claiming this as evidence of “absolute resource decoupling.”
Eating the planet
The big, long picture is quite unequivocal. Global use of material resources has increased tenfold from 1900 to present, from less than 10 Gigatonnes (Gt) per year to roughly 88.6 Gt in 2017. In the decades since 1970, the rate of growth has actually accelerated, not slowed, as consumption has more than tripled.
Meanwhile, only 9–12 percent of materials are recycled, and about half of all resource use is used to provide energy in a broad sense. The other half is used for infrastructure such as buildings, transport, machines and consumer goods.
The BIOS authors find that there are certainly clear cases, limited to specific economic sectors or particular geographical regions, where we can find evidence of resource use seeming to diminish while GDP grows. But this is always linked to deepening of resource use elsewhere. The problem is that there is “no evidence of ongoing, global absolute resource decoupling.”
The situation is pretty serious. The scientists attempt to identify what genuine decoupling needs to look like, and then seek to discover whether there is any evidence that it is happening. They conclude that there is simply no viable scenario for decoupling:
“For absolute resource decoupling to make sense as a global goal, we would need a scenario where, in ca. 30 years, the economy produces 2.6 times more GDP out of every ton of material used, under conditions where material use diminishes ca. 40 percent globally. Currently, no trends corresponding to this scenario are observable and, to our knowledge, no concrete proposals with such a level of decoupling have been presented.”
30 years of scientific data: no evidence of decoupling
The second paper by the BIOS team published in Environmental Science & Policy is even more damning. The team goes further to review the entire corpus of scientific literature over the last few decades to see if any empirical evidence of genuine, absolute decoupling can be found.
The study reviewed 179 scientific studies on decoupling published between 1990 and 2019 — a period of nearly 30 years — and found, in short, that: “… the evidence does not suggest that decoupling towards ecological sustainability is happening at a global (or even regional) scale.”
While there is some evidence of ‘impact decoupling’, especially for greenhouse gas emissions in wealthy countries for certain periods of time, there is no evidence of “economy-wide resource decoupling, least of all on the international and global scale. Quite the opposite: there is evidence of increased material intensity and re-coupling.”
Decoupling is therefore not a truly scientific concept. It is, instead, merely an “abstract possibility that no empirical evidence can disprove but that in the absence of robust empirical evidence or detailed and concrete plans rests, in part, on faith.”
Instead of focusing on the mythology that we can continue business-as-usual, we need to find ways to mobilise both technology and fundamental restructuring of our economies and production relations to transition to new forms of prosperity.
As Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics has shown: “Over and over again, empirical data shows that it is possible to achieve high levels of human welfare without high levels of GDP with significantly less pressure on the planet. How? By sharing income more fairly and investing in universal health care, education, and other public goods. The evidence is clear: When it comes to delivering long, healthy, flourishing lives for all, this is what counts — this is what progress looks like.”
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The BIOS team thus concludes that “more attention should be given to conceptualisations of economy that do not rely on economic growth as the key route towards ecological sustainability and human wellbeing.”
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is Executive Director of the System Shift Lab. He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems and a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. An award-winning investigative journalist, change strategist and systems theorist, Nafeez is editor of the crowdfundedinvestigative journalism platform, INSURGE intelligence. Previously he was ‘system shift’ columnist at VICE reporting on ‘global system transformation’, and a Guardian environment blogger covering the geopolitics of interconnected environment, energy and economic crises. He is a former Visiting Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, where he produced his latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017). He is the winner of the 2010 Routledge-GCPS Essay Prize and 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, and has been twice listed among the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 most influential Londoners.