Green Growth

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Three studies that show it isn't possible

Jason Hinkel:

"the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.

A team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich first raised doubts in 2012. The group ran a sophisticated computer model that predicted what would happen to global resource use if economic growth continued on its current trajectory, increasing at about 2 to 3 percent per year. It found that human consumption of natural resources (including fish, livestock, forests, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels) would rise from 70 billion metric tons per year in 2012 to 180 billion metric tons per year by 2050. For reference, a sustainable level of resource use is about 50 billion metric tons per year—a boundary we breached back in 2000.

The team then reran the model to see what would happen if every nation on Earth immediately adopted best practice in efficient resource use (an extremely optimistic assumption). The results improved; resource consumption would hit only 93 billion metric tons by 2050. But that is still a lot more than we’re consuming today. Burning through all those resources could hardly be described as absolute decoupling or green growth.

In 2016, a second team of scientists tested a different premise: one in which the world’s nations all agreed to go above and beyond existing best practice. In their best-case scenario, the researchers assumed a tax that would raise the global price of carbon from $50 to $236 per metric ton and imagined technological innovations that would double the efficiency with which we use resources. The results were almost exactly the same as in Dittrich’s study. Under these conditions, if the global economy kept growing by 3 percent each year, we’d still hit about 95 billion metric tons of resource use by 2050. Bottom line: no absolute decoupling.

Finally, last year the U.N. Environment Program—once one of the main cheerleaders of green growth theory—weighed in on the debate. It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per metric ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The result? We hit 132 billion metric tons by 2050. This finding is worse than those of the two previous studies because the researchers accounted for the “rebound effect,” whereby improvements in resource efficiency drive down prices and cause demand to rise—thus canceling out some of the gains.

Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources." (

More information

Green Growth is Possible: sources

Recommended by Robert Pollin:

  • Pollin, Greening the Global Economy, Cambridge ma 2015.
  • Pollin, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, James Heintz and Bracken Hendricks, Green Growth, Center for American Progress, 2014;
  • Pollin, Garrett-Peltier, Heintz and Shouvik Chakraborty, Global Green Growth, un Industrial Development Organization and Global Green Growth Institute, 2015.

Further country-specific studies are:

  • Pollin and Chakraborty, ‘An Egalitarian Green Growth Program for India’, Economic and Political Weekly, L, 42, 10/17/15, pp. 38–51;
  • Pollin, Garrett-Peltier and Chakraborty, ‘An Egalitarian Clean Energy Investment Program for Spain, 2015, Political Economy Research Institute Working Paper no. 390;
  • and Amanda Page-Hoongrajok, Chakraborty and Pollin, ‘Austerity vs Green Growth for Puerto Rico,’ Challenge, 2017, 60:6, pp. 543–73.