Absolute Decoupling

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  • "between 2000 and 2014, twenty-one countries, including the us, Germany, the uk, Spain and Sweden, all managed to absolutely decouple gdp growth from co2 emissions—that is, gdp in these countries expanded over this fourteen-year period, while co2 emissions fell." [1]


Robert Pollin:

"To make real progress on climate stabilization, the single most critical project is to cut the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas dramatically and without delay. The reason why this is so crucial is because producing and consuming energy from fossil fuel is responsible for generating about 70 per cent of the greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil and natural gas alone produce about 66 per cent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, with another 2 per cent caused mainly by methane leakages during extraction. The most recent worldwide data from the International Energy Agency (iea) indicate that global co2 emissions were around 32 billion tons in 2015.footnote7 The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc), which provide conservative benchmarks for what is required to stabilize the average global temperature at no more than 2° Celsius above the pre-industrial average, suggest that global co2 emissions need to fall by about 40 per cent within twenty years, to 20 billion tons per year, and by 80 per cent as of 2050, to 7 billion tons.footnote8

The global economy is nowhere near on track to meet these goals. Overall global emissions rose by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2015, from 23 to 32 billion tons per year, as economies throughout the world continued to burn increasing amounts of oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy. According to the iea’s 2017 forecasting model, if current global policies remain on a steady trajectory through 2040, global co2 emissions will rise to 43 billion tons per year. The iea also presents what it terms a ‘New Policies’ forecast for 2040, with the global ‘new policies’ corresponding closely to the agreements reached at the un-sponsored 2015 Paris Climate Summit. Coming out of the conference, all 196 countries formally recognized the grave dangers posed by climate change and committed to substantially lowering their emissions. Nevertheless, the iea estimates that, under its New Policies scenario, global co2 emissions will still rise to 36 billion tons per year as of 2040. Moreover, the iea’s forecast takes no account of the fact that the Paris commitments were non-binding on the signatory governments, nor that the United States under Trump has renounced the agreement. In short, there is at present nothing close to an international project in place capable of moving the global economy onto a viable climate-stabilization path. footnote9

People still need to consume energy—to light, heat and cool buildings; to power cars, buses, trains and planes; to operate computers and industrial machinery, among other uses. As such, to make progress toward climate stabilization requires a viable alternative to the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure for meeting the world’s energy needs. Energy consumption, and economic activity more generally, therefore need to be absolutely decoupled from the consumption of fossil fuels—that is, fossil-fuel consumption will need to fall steadily and dramatically in absolute terms, even while people must still be able to consume energy resources to meet their various demands. The more modest goal of relative decoupling—through which fossil-fuel consumption and co2 emissions continue to increase, but at a slower rate than gdp growth—is therefore not a solution. Economies can continue to grow—and even grow rapidly, as in China and India—while still advancing a viable climate-stabilization project, as long as the growth process is absolutely decoupled from fossil-fuel consumption. In fact, between 2000 and 2014, twenty-one countries, including the us, Germany, the uk, Spain and Sweden, all managed to absolutely decouple gdp growth from co2 emissions—that is, gdp in these countries expanded over this fourteen-year period, while co2 emissions fell.\ This is a positive development, but only a small step in the right direction." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/II112/articles/robert-pollin-de-growth-vs-a-green-new-deal)

Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth

"Perhaps the most influential contemporary discussion on the economics of climate change and degrowth is Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth. Jackson begins by emphasizing that a viable climate-stabilization path requires absolute decoupling between growth and emissions on a global scale, not merely relative decoupling. This point is indisputable. Jackson then reviews data for 1965–2015, showing that absolute decoupling has not occurred either at a global level or among, respectively, low-, middle- or high-income countries. Again, there is no disputing this evidence—although, as noted above, several individual countries did achieve absolute decoupling between gdp growth and co2 emissions for 2000–14. In fact, there are only two major issues to debate with Jackson. The first is whether absolute decoupling is a realistic possibility, moving forward. Jackson is dubious, writing that ‘the evidence that decoupling offers a coherent escape from the dilemma of growth is, ultimately, far from convincing. The speed at which resource and emissions efficiencies have to improve if we are going to meet carbon targets are at best heroic, if the economy is growing relentlessly.’

But is it really the case that absolute decoupling requires ‘heroic’ advances in building a clean-energy economy? It is true that absolute decoupling on a global scale is a highly challenging project. But we can be fairly precise in measuring the magnitude of the challenge. As discussed above, it will require an investment level in clean renewables and energy efficiency at about 1.5–2 per cent of global gdp annually. This amounts to about $1 trillion at today’s global economy level and $1.5 trillion average over the next twenty years. These are large but realistic investment goals which could be embraced by economies at all levels of development, in every region of the globe. One reason why this is a realistic project is that it would support rising average living standards and expanding job opportunities, in low-income countries in particular. For nearly forty years now, the gains from economic growth have persistently favoured the rich. Nevertheless, the prospects for reversing inequality in all countries will be far greater when the overall economy is growing than when the rich are fighting everyone else for shares of a shrinking pie. How sanguine, for example, would we expect affluent Canadians to be over the prospect of their incomes being cut by half or more in absolute dollars over the next thirty years? In political terms, the attempt to implement a degrowth agenda would render the global clean-energy project utterly unrealistic.

The second issue to raise with Jackson is still more to the point: does degrowth offer a viable alternative to absolute decoupling as a climate-stabilization project? As we have seen, the answer is ‘No.’ Jackson himself provides no substantive discussion to demonstrate otherwise. Indeed, on the issue of climate stabilization, Jackson offers no basis for disputing Herman Daly’s charactization of degrowth as a slogan in search of a programme. Overall, then, if the left is serious about mounting a viable, global, climate-stabilization project, it should not be losing time seeking to build an all-purpose, broad-brush degrowth movement—which, for the reasons outlined, cannot succeed in actually stabilizing the climate. This is even more emphatically the case when a fair and workable approach to climate stabilization lies right before us, by way of the Green New Deal."

More information

  • Mark Lawrence of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, research findings on co2 removal proposals;
  • Mara Prentiss at Harvard on the land-use requirements for building a 100 per cent renewable energy economy.