Parrique T., Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J.H. 2019, 78 pp.
Is it possible to enjoy both economic growth and environmental sustainability? This question is a matter of fierce political debate between green growth and post-growth advocates. Over the past decade, green growth clearly dominated policy making with policy agendas at the United Nations, European Union, and in numerous countries building on the assumption that decoupling environmental pressures from gross domestic product (GDP) could allow future economic growth without end.
Considering what is at stake, a careful assessment to determine whether the scientific foundations behind this “decoupling hypothesis” are robust or not is needed. This report reviews the empirical and theoretical literature to assess the validity of this hypothesis. The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely
to happen in the future.
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. The literature reviewed clearly 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.
There are at least seven reasons to be skeptical about the occurrence of sufficient decoupling in the future: Rising energy expenditures, Rebound effects, Problem shifting, The underestimated impact of services, The limited potential of recycling, Insufficient and inappropriate technological change, and Cost shifting.
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.
This report highlights the need for a new conceptual toolbox to inform and support the design and evaluation of environmental policies. Policy-makers have to acknowledge the fact that addressing environmental breakdown may require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries. In other words, we advocate complementing efficiency-oriented policies with sufficiency policies, with a shift in priority and emphasis from the former to the latter even though both have a role to play. From this perspective, it appears urgent for policy-makers to pay more attention to and support the developing diversity of alternatives to green growth.