The contradiction of the sustainable development goals:
Growth versus ecology on a finite planet
Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths,
University of London, London SE14 6NW, UK
Jason Hickel, Goldsmiths, University of
London, Department of Anthropology, London
SE14 6NW, UK.
There are two sides to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which appear at
risk of contradiction. One calls for humanity to achieve “harmony with nature”and
to protect the planet from degradation, with specific targets laid out in Goals 6, 12,
13, 14, and 15. The other calls for continued global economic growth equivalent to
3% per year, as outlined in Goal 8, as a method for achieving human development
objectives. The SDGs assume that efficiency improvements will suffice to reconcile
the tension between growth and ecological sustainability. This paper draws on empir-
ical data to test whether this assumption is valid, paying particular attention to two
key ecological indicators: resource use and CO2 emissions. The results show that
global growth of 3% per year renders it empirically infeasible to achieve (a) any reduc-
tions in aggregate global resource use and (b) reductions in CO2 emissions rapid
enough to stay within the carbon budget for 2°C. In other words, Goal 8 violates
the sustainability objectives of the SDGs. The paper proposes specific changes to
SDG targets in order to resolve this issue, such as removing the requirement of aggre-
gate global growth and introducing quantified objectives for resource use per capita
with substantial reductions in high‐income nations. Scaling down resource use is also
the most feasible way to achieve the climate target, as it reduces energy demand. The
paper presents alternative pathways for realizing human development objectives that
rely on reducing inequality—both within nations and between them—rather than
climate change, decoupling, growth, human development, inequality, resource use, sustainable
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the
United Nations General Assembly in September 2015. With 17 broad
goals and 169 specific targets, the SDGs have been celebrated for
advancing a more comprehensive and holistic vision than that of their
predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDGs
represent a clear shift in development theory from seeing poverty and
underdevelopment as separate from environmental concerns, to
recognizing that the two are intimately bound together: that human
flourishing cannot be achieved and sustained on a planet in ecological
crisis. But despite these advances, questions remain about whether
the SDGs manage to attain internal coherence.
There are two sides to the SDGs, which appear at risk of contradic-
tion. One calls for humanity to achieve “harmony with nature,”to pro-
tect the planet from degradation, and to take urgent action on climate
change, with specific targets laid out in Goals 6, 12, 13, 14, and 15
(described below). The other calls for continued global economic
Received: 19 November 2018 Revised: 18 February 2019 Accepted: 26 February 2019
Sustainable Development. 2019;1–12. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environmentwileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/sd 1
growth at existing levels or higher through 2030, as outlined in Goal 8,
on the assumption that growth is necessary for human development
and the eradication of poverty and hunger (as in Goals 1, 2, 3, and 4;
described below). A number of studies have commented on the ten-
sion between the sustainability and growth objectives of the SDGs.
Gupta and Vegelin (2016) noticed that the SDGs embody “trade‐offs
in favour of economic growth over social well‐being and ecological
viability.”Pongiglione (2015) suggests that such contradictions should
be resolved by prioritizing human development goals that are compat-
ible with and indeed even facilitate sustainability objectives. Hajer
et al. (2015) call for the SDGs to start with a firm commitment to
respecting planetary boundaries and seek to achieve human develop-
ment within those limits, following the “safe and justice operating
This paper adds to the literature by assessing the tension between
the growth and sustainability objectives in quantified terms, to deter-
mine whether it is in fact feasible to pursue them both. Can we
achieve the growth demanded by Goal 8 while at the same time feasi-
bly upholding the SDGs' commitments to sustainability? The paper
focuses on two key ecological indicators: resource use and green-
house gas emissions. With respect to resource use, the SDGs assume
that we can decouple GDP from resource use such that the global
economy can continue to grow while environmental impact declines
to sustainable levels. With respect to greenhouse gas emissions, the
SDGs assume that the global economy can continue to grow while
emissions decline fast enough to stay within the carbon budget for
2°C warming over pre‐industrial levels, as per the Paris Agreement. I
test these assumptions against extant empirical evidence to determine
whether they are robust enough to form the basis of international
The results indicate that the growth Goal—as presently formulated
—is not compatible with the sustainability objectives of the SDGs,
given existing data and empirical models. The paper concludes by pro-
posing specific changes to the SDGs in order to resolve this contradic-
tion while presenting alternative pathways for realizing human
development objectives that rely on equity—both within nations and
between them—rather than aggregate growth.
2|THE TWO SIDES OF THE SDGS
The preamble to the SDGs recognizes that “Natural resource depletion
and adverse impacts of environmental degradation, including desertifi-
cation, drought, land degradation, freshwater scarcity, and loss of bio-
diversity, add to and exacerbate the list of challenges which humanity
faces.”To address this crisis, the text affirms that “economic, social,
and technological progress”must occur “in harmony with nature.”It
envisages “a world in which …consumption and production patterns
and use of all natural resources—from air to land, from rivers, lakes
and aquifers to oceans and seas—are sustainable …One in which
humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other
living species are protected.”It affirms that “planet Earth and its eco-
systems are our common home,”and promises to “ensure the lasting
protection of the planet and its natural resources.”It sets out “to pro-
tect the planet from degradation,”and “to conserve and sustainably use
oceans and seas, freshwater resources, as well as forests, mountains,
and drylands and to protect biodiversity, ecosystems, and wildlife …
tackle water scarcity and water pollution, to strengthen cooperation
on desertification, dust storms, land degradation, and drought.”
Five of the 17 goals deal directly with sustainability. Goal 6:
“Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanita-
tion for all.”Goal 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production
patterns,”with Target 12.2 being particularly important: “By 2030,
achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural
resources.”Goal 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change
and its impacts.”Goal 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans,
seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.”Goal 15:
“Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosys-
tems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt
and reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss.”I refer to these
collectively as the “sustainability objectives”of the SDGs.
At the same time, the SDGs call for a significant increase in the size
of the global economy. This is clearest in Goal 8. Target 8.1 reads:
“Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national cir-
cumstances and, in particular, at least 7% gross domestic product
growth per annum in the least developed countries,”as measured by
“annual growth rate of real GDP per capita.”Target 8.2 adds: “Achieve
higher levels of economic productivity,”as measured by “annual
growth rate of real GDP per employed person.”Target 9.2 indicates
that this growth should be primarily industrial: “Promote inclusive
and sustainable industrialization and, by 2030, significantly raise
industry's share of employment and gross domestic product in line
with national circumstances, and double its share in least developed
We can quantify Target 8.1. In the years between the end of the
financial crisis in 2010 and the publication of the SDGs in 2015, world
GDP per capita grew at an average of 1.85% per year.
language of Target 8.1, let us assume that the SDGs aim to sustain this
rate of growth from 2015 to 2030. At this rate, global GDP per capita
would increase 32% by 2030. To get a sense for what the size of the
global economy would be in 2030 at this rate, we have to account for
population growth. According to the United Nations, global population
is projected to grow from 7.2 billion in 2015 to 8.5 billion in 2030,
an average rate of 1.11% per year over the period. To sustain per
capita growth of 1.85%, then, the GDP needs to grow at 2.96% per
year. At this rate, the global economy would expand 55% by 2030.
Yet Target 8.1 goes beyond simply maintaining the present rate of
global GDP growth. In least developed countries (LDCs), the goal is to
increase annual GDP growth and maintain it at a minimum of 7% per
year. This represents an additional 1.73% annual growth in LDCs on
top of their 2010–2014 average. If we add this additional LDC growth
The timeframe here is the 4 years from the end of 2010 to the end of 2014. All GDP‐related
figures are derived from World Bank data, in constant 2010 US$.
United Nations, “UN projects world population,”2015.
requirement to the 2.96% baseline global growth required by Target
8.1, this translates into aggregate global GDP growth of 3% per year.
In what follows, I will use this figure as the specific expression of Tar-
There is no rationale given for why the SDGs promote increasing
industrial growth (Esquivel, 2016). The document does not specify
whether it is an end in itself, or a means to an end. The assumption
seems to be—although this is never articulated—that industrial growth
is necessary for achieving human development. The SDGs are commit-
ted to ending poverty (Goal 1), ending hunger (Goal 2), ensuring health
and promoting well‐being (Goal 3), and improving access to education
(Goal 4). Szirmai (2015) suggests that Goals 8 and 9 were included as a
reaction to the criticism that the MDGs lack a theoretical foundation
for how to achieve the development goals (the assumed link between
growth and human development is employment: Target 8.5 implies
that growth should create more jobs). But this move has not helped
matters much, and indeed introduces another problem. In their review
of the SDGs, the International Council for Science and International
Social Science Council (2015) finds that the SDGs lack theoretical
grounding and suffer from internal contradictions between develop-
ment and sustainability, although they do not specify the latter.
Let us leave aside for now the question of whether GDP growth is
in fact necessary for human development—that is, whether it is a
meaningful and efficient way of reducing poverty and hunger and of
improving human well‐being. I will return to this in the concluding dis-
cussion. The more immediate matter is a straightforward empirical
question: whether it is possible to achieve 3% annual global GDP
growth through 2030, as Goal 8 demands, while at the same time
upholding the SDGs' commitment to the sustainability objectives, spe-
cifically (a) achieving sustainable use of natural resources and (b)
reducing greenhouse gas emissions rapidly enough to keep us within
the carbon budget for 2°C. I will examine these in turn.
SUSTAINABLE RESOURCE USE?
Goals 6, 12, 14, and 15 all have to do with resource use in various
dimensions, but here, I will focus on the all‐encompassing objective
represented in Target 12.2: “By 2030, achieve sustainable manage-
ment and efficient use of natural resources,”as measured by “material
footprint, material footprint per capita, and material footprint per
Material footprint is a measure of resource use that covers all of
the resources consumed by a nation (metals, fossil fuels, biomass,
and construction materials), including the upstream resources involved
in producing and shipping imported goods (Gutowski, Cooper, & Sahni,
2017; Wiedmann et al., 2015). Although material footprint is not a
direct indicator of ecological pressure, a robust proxy (Krausmann
et al., 2009, p. 2703). Van der Voet, van Oers, and Nikolic (2004) find
that there is a high degree of correlation (0.73) between material
throughput and ecological impacts. In this sense, material footprint is
an important indicator of pressure on marine ecosystems (Goal 14)
and terrestrial ecosystems (Goal 15).
Material footprint per GDP is an indicator of resource efficiency.
Higher resource efficiency means more GDP extracted per unit of
material resources. Target 8.4 states: “Improve progressively, through
2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and
endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degra-
dation, in accordance with the 10‐year framework of programmes on
sustainable consumption and production, with developed countries
taking the lead.”The SDGs rely on this objective to reconcile the ten-
sion between economic growth and ecological sustainability.
The SDGs offer no quantified target for resource efficiency, and do
not specify what a sustainable level of material footprint might be.
The supplementary material to Goal 12 clarifies that achieving sustain-
ability requires “reducing resource use,”but without indicating by how
much. The scholarship on this question is still limited, but a clear con-
sensus is emerging. Dittrich, Giljum, Lutter, and Polzin (2012) initially
proposed 50 billion tons per year as a planetary boundary for material
footprint, with a per capita limit of 8 tons per year by 2030. The figure
of 50 billion tons has also been adopted by Hoekstra and Wiedmann
(2014) in a high‐profile study, as well as by the UN Environment
Programme's International Resource Panel (2014), which recommends
a per capita target of 6–8 tons per year by 2050. Bringezu (2015)
offers further justification for 50 billion tons and suggests a per capita
target of 3–6 tons by 2050. Bringezu proposed a quantified potential
sustainability corridor for the SDGs, but it was not included in the final
draft of the goals.
Regardless of the target we might choose, the objective of reduc-
ing material footprint by any amount requires a dramatic reversal of
present trends. Material footprint has been rising on a steady trajec-
tory over the past century of recorded data (Giljum, Dittrich, Lieber,
& Lutter, 2014; Krausmann et al., 2009), and reached 87 billion tons
On a per capita basis, the majority of this overshoot is due
to consumption in high‐income nations (~27 tons per person per year).
As for material footprint per GDP, there was a period of relative
decoupling from 1980 to 2002: material footprint grew by 1.78%
per year, which was slower than the rate of global GDP growth
(2.9% per year).
Using the formula (ΔEfficiency = ΔOutput/ΔInput),
this represents relative decoupling of 1.11% per year. But during the
period 2002 to 2013, the relationship changed. Material footprint
growth accelerated to 3.85% per year, outstripping the growth rate
of GDP (2.93% per year).
In other words, the material efficiency of
the world economy has been worsening in the 21st century, not
This represents a problem for the SDGs. If the resource efficiency
trends of the 21st century continue, the call in Target 8.1 for 3%
annual global GDP growth will drive material footprint up from
Nor does the 10‐year framework of programs on sustainable consumption and production,
to which the SDGs refer (in Targets 8.4 and 12.1).
According to the 2018 imprint of materialflow.net.
These figures come from the 2015 imprint of materialflows.net.
These figures come from the 2015 imprint of materialflows.net.
87 billion tons in 2015 to 167 billion tons in 2030, overshooting the
sustainability threshold by a factor of three. If we achieve the
resource efficiency trends of 1980 to 2002, 3% annual GDP growth
will drive material footprint to 119 billion tons per year by 2030,
which overshoots the sustainability threshold by a factor of two.
Both of these scenarios violate Goal 12. The only way to achieve
the GDP growth target while at the same time reducing material
footprint is to achieve absolute decoupling, in other words,
decoupling at a rate that exceeds the rate of GDP growth. Given that
Target 8.1 requires GDP growth of 3%, this would require sustained
decoupling at a rate of at least 3.01% per year—simply to reduce
material footprint by any amount at all.
If we take 50 billion tons as the target for sustainability, material
footprint must be reduced by 43% from 2015 levels. To do this by
2030 requires reducing annual resource use by 3.63% per year from
2015 to 2030.
If global GDP grows by 3% per year during this period,
this requires decoupling at 6.88% per year. In other words, one might
argue that we can keep the growth objectives of Target 8.1 as long as
we achieve absolute decoupling at a rate of 3.01% per year (in order
to reduce material footprint) or 6.88% per year (in order to reduce
material footprint to 50 billion tons). The difficulty is that this would
require efficiency improvements at a rate three to six times faster than
has ever been achieved in history. Indeed, although relative
decoupling has occurred in multiple countries and on a global scale
in the past (Bringezu, Schultz, Steger, & Baudisch, 2004), there are
no examples of nations achieving sustained absolute decoupling and
there has never been absolute decoupling at a global scale (Pulselli
et al., 2015). The question becomes: Is decoupling at a rate of 3.01%
to 6.88% per year feasible?
There are three major empirical studies that explore this question
on a global scale. In the first, Dittrich et al. (2012) run a best‐case sce-
nario with what they consider to be highly optimistic assumptions,
under conditions of continued economic growth. The scenario
assumes that all countries follow best practice in efficient resource
use; and that reducing the consumption of one material will not lead
to more consumption of another material. Under this scenario, mate-
rial footprint stabilizes at 93 billion tons by 2050. This represents rel-
ative decoupling over the period, with some improvement over the
1980–2002 efficiency trend described above. But there is no reduc-
tion in material footprint, and it far outstrips the sustainability thresh-
old of 50 billion tons. Thus Goal 12 is violated.
In a second study, Schandl et al. (2016) explore the potential for
policy measures to improve resource use outcomes, once again under
conditions of continued economic growth (3% per year). The “high
efficiency”scenario, with a carbon price rising to $236 per ton, plus
a doubling in the material efficiency of the economy due to technolog-
ical innovations (improving from a rate of 1.5% per year to 4.5%),
shows that global material footprint still grows steadily, reaching 95
billion tons in 2050.
It is important to note that Schandl et al. (2016) provide no
evidence that their assumed rate of efficiency improvement is possible
to sustain. But even so, they conclude: “Our research shows that while
some relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none
would lead to an absolute reduction in …materials footprint.”As with
Dittrich et al. (2012), this result achieves no reduction in material
footprint and is far from achieving sustainable levels, thus violating
Finally, the International Resource Panel of the UN Environment
Program (2017a, pp. 42–45) models a high efficiency scenario with
strong policy measures: a global carbon price rising to $573 per ton,
a resource extraction tax, and rapid improvements in resource effi-
ciency (for full details of the model see UNEP, 2017b, p. 287, ff).
The result shows that with a modest rate of 1.75% GDP growth,
global material footprint rises to 132 billion tons in 2050. Although
some relative decoupling is achieved, there is no reduction in material
footprint. Indeed, material footprint ends up being significantly higher
in 2050 than either Dittrich et al. (2012) or Schandl et al. (2016) pre-
dict, because the model incorporates the “rebound effect”:As
resource efficiency improves, the cost of resources goes down, thus
increasing demand and cancelling out some of the gains (UNEP,
2017b, p. 106, ff.; see Herring & Sorrell, 2009).
In other words, existing empirical evidence suggests that absolute
decoupling of GDP from material footprint is not feasible on a global
scale in the context of continued economic growth, even under the
best possible conditions. This presents a problem for the SDGs, as
the only way to reconcile Goal 8 with Goal 12 is to achieve absolute
There is one well‐known study that suggests absolute decoupling
is possible on a national scale, however. Hatfield‐Dodds et al. (2015)
explore scenarios for Australia from 2015 to 2050, assuming high
levels of policy‐driven efficiency gains and an overall 70%
improvement in resource efficiency. The result shows that material
footprint falls while GDP continues to rise at 2.41% per year. There
are three reasons to be cautious when applying this result to the
SDGs, however. First, the study is focused on one of the richest
nations in the world, which has unique capacity for resource
efficiency improvements, and thus cannot be extrapolated
worldwide. Second, the rate of efficiency gains that Hatfield‐Dodds
et al. assume has been criticized as baseless and unrealistic
(Alexander, Rutherford, & Floyd, 2018). Indeed, the Australian
Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that
efficiency is likely to improve by only one‐eighth of the rate that
Hatfield‐Dodds et al. assume. Third, even if we could extrapolate
this result worldwide, it would not be enough to reduce resource
use to sustainable levels. The result implies decoupling at an average
rate of about 4% per year. If the world could achieve this rate from
2015, an economic growth rate of 3% per year would leave us with
resource use of 74 billion tons per year by 2030. This represents
a reduction in material footprint, but it still overshoots the
sustainability threshold by 48%.
Moreover, the Hatfield‐Dodds et al. (2015) results apply only to
the short term. Ward et al. (2016) have demonstrated that the same
model extrapolated into the longer term shows that material footprint
begins to rise again after 2050, approaching the rate of GDP growth.
Assuming that resource use in 2015 was the same as in 2013—a conservative assumption.
The reason is that resource efficiency improvements eventually
approach physical limits, after which growth drives resource use back
up. Ward et al. conclude that this implies a “robust rebuttal to the
claim of absolute decoupling.”“We conclude that decoupling of
GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at
best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is
impossible for essential, non‐substitutable resources because the
efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits. Growth
in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in
material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP
growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is therefore misleading to
develop growth‐oriented policy around the expectation that
decoupling is possible.”
In other words, although it may be feasible for rich nations to
achieve absolute decoupling within the period of the SDGs, existing
empirical evidence suggests that it is not feasible to sustain this
trajectory in the longer term (i.e., to 2050). On a global scale, the
evidence indicates that absolute decoupling is not feasible within
Goal 13, the goal on climate change, includes a qualifier:
“Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental
forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.”The
UNFCCC's Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November
2016, commits the world to keeping global warming to no more than
2°C above preindustrial levels—and this is what the SDGs therefore
pledge to uphold. However, the emissions reductions that the Paris
Agreement commits to thus far are not adequate to achieve this goal.
Business‐as‐usual is set to lead to 4.2°C of warming (2.5°C to 5.5°C)
by 2100. With the Nationally Determined Contributions and Intended
Nationally Determined Contributions in place, global warming is
projected to reach 3.3°C (1.9°C to 4.4°C)—an improvement over the
reference scenario but still far exceeding the 2°C threshold.
scenarios violate Goal 13.
In order fulfil Goal 13 and keep within the carbon budget for 2°C,
the world will have to make much more aggressive reductions in
CO2 emissions, at a rate of 4% per year.
Theoretically, this can be
accomplished with a total shift to renewable energy (see Jacobson &
Delucchi, 2011). The question is, can this be done rapidly enough
against a backdrop of economic growth? If the global economy grows
by 3% per year, as per Goal 8, then achieving emissions reductions of
4% per year requires decoupling (or decarbonization) of 7.29% per
year. For reference, World Bank data shows that global carbon effi-
ciency (CO2 per 2010 $US GDP) improved at a rate of 1.28% per year
from 1960 to 2000. In order to stay under 2°C, then, decarbonization
needs to occur six times faster than historical rates. And it is important
to note that the rate of decarbonization has not improved in the 21st
century; World Bank data shows that from 2000 to 2014 there was
zero improvement in global carbon efficiency.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth
Assessment Report (AR5) includes 116 mitigation scenarios that are
consistent with Representative Concentration Pathway 2.6 (RCP2.6),
which offers the best chances of staying below 2°C. As all of these
scenarios stabilize global temperatures while global GDP continues
to rise (GDP growth is a prior assumption in all existing IPCC
scenarios), it would appear that they successfully reconcile SDGs 8
and 13. But most of these scenarios do not accomplish this solely
by decarbonizing economic activity; rather, they accept that
continued economic growth will drive emissions up to the point of
overshooting the carbon budget, and assume that “negative emissions
technologies”will draw excess CO2 back out of the atmosphere later
in the century. One hundred one of the 116 mitigation scenarios rely
on negative emissions, specifically a technology known as bioenergy
with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), although others are
included as well (for a review see Minx et al., 2018).
growing large tree plantations to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere,
harvesting the biomass and burning it for energy, while capturing the
CO2 emissions from the power stations and storing the waste
BECCS is highly controversial among climate scientists. First, it has
never been proven to be economically viable at scale (Peters, 2017).
Second, the biofuel plantations assumed in the AR5 scenarios would
require land two to three times the size of India, which would under-
mine food production and drive biodiversity loss, water depletion
and chemical loading (Smith et al., 2016; Heck, Gerten, Lucht, &
Popp, 2018). Third, the necessary CO2 storage capacity may not exist
(De Coninck & Benson, 2014; Global CCS Institute, 2015). Anderson
and Peters (2016) conclude that “BECCS thus remains a highly
speculative technology”and that relying on it is therefore “an
unjust and high stakes gamble”; if it is unsuccessful, “society will be
locked into a high‐temperature pathway.”This conclusion is shared
by a growing number of scientists (e.g., Fuss et al., 2014; Vaughan
& Gough, 2016; Larkin, Kuriakose, Sharmina, & Anderson, 2017;
Van Vuuren et al., 2018), and by the European Academies Science
Advisory Council (2018).
Given these concerns, it is not clear that we can adjudicate the
compatibility of SDGs 8 and 13 using scenarios that rely heavily on
BECCS. Moreover, evidence from Smith et al. (2016) and Heck et al.
(2018) suggests that the development of bioenergy plantations expan-
sive enough to achieve Goal 13 would likely violate Goal 2 on ending
hunger (by removing land from food production), Goal 6 on sustain-
able water management (due to irrigation requirements), Goal 14 on
oceans (due to runoff of agricultural chemicals), and Goal 15 on terres-
trial ecosystems (due to expansive monoculture development).
If we exclude BECCS as a dominant assumption, the tension
between Goals 8 and 13 becomes more apparent. Only six of the
“Climate scoreboard,”climate interactive.
PWC, “Is Paris possible? The Low Carbon Economy Index 2017”
Another nine scenarios include some BECCS but not to the point of achieving negative
116 scenarios for 2°C in AR5 exclude BECCS. These assume “optimal
full technology”in all other areas, plus mass afforestation, and with
high mitigation costs. While these are theoretically possible pathways,
there is no empirical evidence that they are feasible.
Results of empirical studies that do exist are not promising.
Raftery, Zimmer, Frierson, Startz, and Liu (2017) project that
decarbonization is likely to reach 1.9% per year on a global scale going
forward. Schandl et al. (2016) show that with a carbon price rising to
$236 per ton plus a doubling in the material efficiency of the economy
(albeit without evidence that this is feasible), we can achieve
decarbonization of 3% per year. Before the IPCC began including
BECCS in its scenarios, they projected that the world could achieve
as much as 3.3% decarbonization per year in a best‐case scenario
(IPCC, 2000). The C‐ROADS model (developed by Climate Interactive
and MIT Sloan) suggests that high subsidies for renewables and
nuclear power, plus high taxes on oil, gas, and coal could drive global
decarbonization at an average rate of 4% per year.
None of these scenarios get us to 7.29% per year, which is the rate
of decarbonization required to keep emissions within the 2°C carbon
budget while at the same time growing the global economy in line with
SDG 8. In other words, empirical models show that the pursuit of SDG
8 will entail violating Goal 13, as the scale effect of growth diminishes
gains achieved through decarbonization. Studies published in the past
year confirm this conclusion. The International Renewable Energy
Association (IRENA, 2018) modelled a rapid shift to solar and wind
energy with installation rates up to 4.6 times faster than the present,
plus improvements in energy intensity of the global economy at double
the historical rate. Van Vuuren et al. (2018) modelled a decline of
global population to 6.9 billion by 2100; 80% reduction of meat con-
sumption by 2050; and a rapid shift to the most efficient cars, air-
planes, and production facilities for cement and steel, in addition to a
carbon tax and other aggressive mitigation strategies. Both studies
found that even with these highly optimistic assumptions in place,
the pressures of continued GDP growth drive emissions to exceed
the carbon budgets for 1.5°C and 2°C. Indeed, Holz, Siegel, Johnston,
Jones, and Sterman (2018) find that without widespread use of nega-
tive emissions technologies, the required rate of decarbonization for
meeting the Paris Agreement is “well outside what is currently deemed
achievable, based on historical evidence and standard modelling.”
Although the SDGs focus on global emissions reductions, it is
important to observe the principle of “common but differentiated
responsibility,”whereby high‐income nations (referred to in the
climate agreements as Annex‐1 nations) will need to make more
aggressive reductions than poor nations, given their greater historical
responsibility for emissions and their greater capacity for managing
the costs of transition to a zero‐carbon future. The principle of com-
mon but differentiated responsibility is also embodied in the SDGs.
Anderson and Bows (2011) have modeled the emissions reductions
necessary for achieving a 50% chance of staying under 2°C (more
relaxed than the two‐thirds chance that the UNFCC calls for), in the
absence of BECCS. They assume that non‐Annex 1 nations defer peak
emissions until 2025, and thereafter are able to mitigate at 7% per
year (an ambitious assumption). They then calculate the remaining
carbon budget and use the result to determine the necessary mitiga-
tion pathway for Annex 1 nations. They conclude that Annex 1 nations
need to reduce emissions by 8–10% per year, beginning in 2015.
Updating this model for 2019, Anderson estimates that Annex 1
nations need to reduce emissions by 12% per year.
Anderson and Bows note that emissions reductions greater than
3–4% per year are thought to be incompatible with a growing economy.
They draw this from Stern (2006), the UK's Committee on Climate
Change (2008), and Hof, den Elzen, and van Vuuren (2009). Anderson
and Bows conclude, therefore, that the Annex 1 mitigation rates
required for staying under 2°C are incompatible with economic growth.
According to this literature, then, SDG 8 is incompatible with Goal 13.
We can also approach this question by looking at decarbonization
rates in Annex 1 nations. If GDP growth in Annex 1 nations continues
at 1.86% per year (the average from 2010 to 2014), as per Target 8.1,
then for Annex 1 nations to cut emissions by 12% per year requires
decarbonization to occur at a rate of 15.8% per year. For perspective,
this is eight times faster than the historic rate of decarbonization in
Annex 1 nations (viz., 1.9% per year from 1970 to 2013), and it is
important to bear in mind that the rate of decoupling has generally
slowed over this period, moving from an average of 2.3% in the first
half of the period to an average of 1.6% in the second half (note that
these are territorial emissions, not consumption‐based emissions;
using the latter would show even less progress).
It also exceeds
the decoupling rate implied by the average G20 Nationally Deter-
mined Contributions under the Paris Agreement (viz., 3% per year)
by a factor of five. From this perspective too, the pursuit of Goal 8
entails violating Goal 13.
There is one empirical model, by Grubler et al. (2018), that feasibly
accomplishes emissions reductions consistent with 1.5°C, without rely-
ing on negative emissions technologies. It does this by reducing mate-
rial throughput (mostly in high‐income nations), which cuts global
energy demand by 40% and therefore makes a rapid transition to clean
energy possible. Although the Grubler et al. scenario projects continued
GDP growth at just over 2% per year, this is an exogenous assumption
that is insensitive to changes in material throughput. In other words, the
scenario does not account for how reductions in production and con-
sumption might impact GDP. Although the model provides a feasible
pathway for achieving Goal 13—indeed the only feasible pathway yet
published—that pathway is likely to be incompatible with the GDP
growth requirement of Goal 8 (given the coupling between material
throughput and GDP), and is incompatible with the industrial output
objectives of Goal 9. I will return to the Grubler et al. scenario below.
In light of the empirical evidence presented above, we can conclude
that there are strong indications that Goal 8 (to sustain aggregate
12% is the figure that Anderson used in various public lectures in 2018. In personal
correspondence (2019) he confirmed a range of 10‐15% per year.
According to the World Bank, Databank, CO2 emissions (kilograms per 2010 US$ GDP).
GDP growth at 3% per year) is incompatible with the sustainability
objectives on resource use and climate change. I will discuss these
conclusions in turn.
5.1 |Resource use
Existing empirical evidence suggests that even with aggressive policy
measures and optimistic assumptions about efficiency improvements,
it is not feasible to achieve any reductions in global material footprint
in the context of existing rates of GDP growth (as per Goal 8). The
high efficiency scenario in the UNEP (2017a, 2017b) model implies
that decoupling of GDP from material footprint can be achieved at a
rate of 1% per year on a global scale over the period 2015 to
The Schandl et al. (2016) model implies that decoupling can
be achieved at a maximum rate of 2.5% per year over the period
2010 to 2050, although—unlike the UNEP model—this model uses
some unjustified assumptions and does not account for the rebound
To reduce global material footprint to 50 billion tons per year
requires that resource use falls 3.63% per year from 2015 to 2030.
In an economy growing at 3% per year, this requires decoupling of
6.88% per year.
This outstrips the UNEP projection by a factor of
six, and the Schandl et al. projection by a factor of three. In light of
this, we can conclude that Goal 8 violates Goal 12. Indeed, the
optimistic decoupling rate projected by Schandl et al.'s high efficiency
scenario is not adequate to achieve reductions in material footprint of
3.63% per year even in a zero‐growth scenario. The only way to
achieve such reductions would be to scale down aggregate global eco-
nomic activity (i.e., as presently measured by GDP). Reducing material
footprint by 3.63% per year requires reducing economic activity by
1.22% per year (if we use Schandle et al.'s assumptions) or 2.67%
per year (if we use the UNEP assumptions).
Although 50 billion tons is a consensus figure in the literature, it
does not appear as a target in the SDGs, and some might argue that
material footprint need not be so low in order to be sustainable. Goal
12 does however require achieving at least some reduction in resource
use from present levels. In the context of global 3% GDP growth, any
level of reduction requires decoupling of at least 3.01% per year. As
this exceeds the rates of decoupling projected by UNEP and Schandl
et al. (2016), we can conclude that Goal 8 violates Goal 12 even under
these “easier”parameters. Achieving any reductions in global material
footprint would require capping the maximum rate of global GDP
growth at 2.5% per year (under the Schandl et al. assumptions) or at
1% per year (under the UNEP assumptions)—both of which are signif-
icantly lower than Goal 8 calls for.
5.2 |Climate change
In order to stay within the carbon budget for 2°C, global emissions
need to be cut by 4% per year—assuming no widespread use of
BECCS. In the context of an economy growing at 3% per year, this
requires decoupling of 7.29% per year. This is six times faster than his-
torical rates, more than double what the Schandl et al. (2016) model
and IPCC (2000) model project (3% per year and 3.3% per year,
respectively), and significantly faster than what the C‐ROADS model
projects (4% per year), all under best‐case scenario policy settings. In
light of this data, we can conclude that Goal 8 violates Goal 13. If
we use the Schandl et al. assumptions, reducing emissions by 4% per
year requires reducing global economic activity by 1.12% per year. If
we use the C‐ROADS assumptions, it requires maintaining global
GDP at present levels (in other words, it is possible to decarbonize fast
enough to stay under 2°C, but only in a zero‐growth economy).
These models are restricted to relatively conventional approaches,
such as taxes and efficiency improvements. Alternative approaches—
including a planned transition to wind and solar power, reductions in
global population and meat consumption, and so forth (i.e., IRENA,
2018; Van Vuuren et al., 2018)—may allow for some continued global
economic growth, but significantly lower than the rate required by
Goal 8. Schroder and Storm (2018) find that, if we are to reduce emis-
sions in line with the 2°C target, global economic growth can be no
more than 0.45% per year over the coming decades.
Yet even while low levels of aggregate economic growth may be
acceptable on a global level, the implications for Annex 1 nations are
starker. The maximum feasible rate of decarbonization suggested by
the models above is 4%, using conventional approaches. Even if Annex
1 nations are able to double this rate using the alternative approaches
suggested above (a highly optimistic assumption), they would still fall
significantly short of the 12% rate of annual emissions reductions that
they need to achieve. These results suggest that the only feasible
pathway for Annex 1 nations to achieve their obligations under the
Paris agreement is to scale down economic activity.
The objective of “scaling down”economic activity is known in the
ecological economics literature as “degrowth.”The goal is not to
reduce GDP, but rather to reduce material throughput and energy
demand (with the understanding that this may result in a reduction
of GDP as currently measured). Schneider et al. (2010, p. 511) define
degrowth as “an equitable downscaling of economic production and
consumption that increases human well‐being and enhances ecologi-
cal conditions.”There is an extensive literature on how high‐income
countries can maintain and even improve their levels of human devel-
opment while slowing their economic activity (e.g., Alier, 2009; Jack-
son, 2009; Kallis, 2011; Kallis, 2018; Victor, 2008), for example by
redistributing existing income, investing in social services, shortening
the working week, and improving wages.
Both the Van Vuuren et al. (2018) and Grubler et al. (2018) scenarios
cited above represent a degrowth approach, showing the Paris target
can be brought within reach (and, in the case of Grubler, achieved) by
reducing material throughput and energy demand, with positive
synergies for the social and environmental objectives of the SDGs.
GDP grows by 1.75% per year, whereas resource use grows by 1.27% per year.
GDP grows by 3% per year, whereas resource use grows by 0.45% per year.
Setting the target date at 2050 instead of 2030 would allow for a slower rate of decoupling.
The Grubler et al. scenario was included in the IPCC Special Report on
1.5°C (2018) as an alternative to relying on speculative negative emis-
sions technologies. Similar scenarios (i.e., D'Allessandro, Dittmer,
Distefano, & Cieplinski, 2018; Victor, 2019) demonstrate that
degrowth can be used to accomplish environmental objectives while
at the same time improving social indicators. These scenarios suggest
that the SDGs can be achieved without the growth objective of Goal 8.
6|CONCLUSIONS AND DISCUSSION
The SDGs offer no clear justification for the demand for global GDP
growth in Goal 8. The assumption seems to be that growth is essential
for achieving the human development objectives on poverty, hunger,
health, and so on. But this is only justifiable in the case of low‐income
countries. Past a certain threshold, additional GDP is no longer
necessary for achieving these objectives. Costa Rica, for example,
has ended extreme poverty and posts high levels of nutrition, life
expectancy, education, sanitation, and access to energy (exceeding
SDG thresholds) with GDP per capita of only $11,000, less than one
fifth that of the United States (O'Neill, Fanning, Lamb, & Steinberger,
2018). It makes little sense to call for growth in nations where GDP
is already significantly above this level. In such cases, human develop-
ment objectives can be achieved by distributing existing GDP more
fairly, and by investing in social services (healthcare, education, etc).
The relationship between GDP growth and human development
is not always robust, even in low and middle‐income countries
(see Reddy & Kvangraven, 2015). This applies to a number of key
objectives in the SDGs:
Goal 1 sets out to end extreme poverty. Thenotion thatgrowth con-
tributes to poverty reduction relies largely on the assumption that
growth will generate gainful employment for the poor (as in Goal 8). This
link is increasingly tenuous, however, given automation and the threat of
technological unemployment. The UN Conference onTrade and Devel-
opment predicts that up to two thirds of jobs in developing countries
might be lost to automation, as “the increased use of robots in developed
countries risks eroding the traditional labour‐cost advantage of develop-
The production of textiles and small electronics (which
accounts for significant employment in the global South) is particularly
easy to automate. In light of this, we cannot assume that growth will
automatically reduce poverty. It would make more sense to target this
objective directly, with policy instruments such as cash transfers, basic
income, job guarantees, minimum wage laws, and so forth.
Goal 2 sets out to end hunger. Yet the Food and Agriculture
Organization states that “the linkage between economic growth and
nutrition has been weak.”
There are other factors that are more
strongly correlated with food security, such as ensuring that small
farmers have secure access to land (Moore Lappé et al., 2013). The
UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food (De Schutter, 2014) argues
that food security requires protecting small farmers from land grabs
and displacement; ensuring they have rights to use, save, and
exchange seeds; regulating financial speculation on food commodities
to prevent price spikes; and reducing corporate control over food
systems. Unfortunately, none of these measures are promoted by the
SDGs. What is more, it is worth noting that many of these measures
are regarded by policymakers as “barriers”to GDP growth, which
illustrates that what is good for poor people is not always what is good
for growth, and vice versa—a reality that Goal 8 does not account for.
Goal 3, on health, aims to reduce a number of mortality indicators.
Although there is a general correlation between GDP and longevity
(countries with higher GDP generally have better life expectancy),
the relationship is not one‐to‐one; rather, it follows a saturation curve
with sharply diminishing returns (Preston, 2007; Steinberger & Rob-
erts, 2010). When it comes to longevity, there are other important
variables at play besides GDP, such as investment in universal
healthcare. Costa Rica's healthcare system allows the country to
match US life expectancy with only one fifth of the US GDP per
capita. Goal 3 also covers “mental health and well‐being.”Here, the
relationship with GDP is particularly tenuous (see Easterlin, 1995;
Easterlin, McVey, Switek, Sawangfa, & Zweig, 2010). In the United
States, happiness levels have remained unchanged since the early
1970s, despite a doubling of real GDP per capita. According to the
Gallup World Poll, many countries (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Neth-
erlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, Denmark, and Costa Rica) have
higher levels of well‐being than the United States, with less GDP per
It is not just that GDP is not strongly correlated with human devel-
opment after a point—it is also that GDP growth past a certain thresh-
old often has a negative impact. Alternative metrics of economic
progress, such as the genuine progress indicator (GPI), make this effect
visible. GPI starts with personal consumption expenditure (also the
starting point for GDP) and adjusts using 24 different components,
such as income distribution, environmental costs, and pollution, while
adding positive components left out of GDP, such as household work.
Kubiszewski et al. (2013) find that in most countries GPI grows along
with GDP until a particular threshold, after which GDP continues to
grow, whereas GPI flattens and in some cases declines. The authors
draw on Max‐Neef (1995) to interpret this threshold as the point at
which the social and environmental costs of GDP growth become sig-
nificant enough to cancel out consumption‐related gains (Deaton,
2008; Inglehart, 1997).
Of course, one might argue that GDP growth is necessary for
mobilizing resources to invest in the technological change required
to achieve absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use and emis-
sions and shift the world towards sustainability. Large economies
tend to be more resource efficient than small economies. The prob-
lem with this approach is that the scale effect of growth outstrips
the efficiency gains that it produces; in other words, larger economies
consume and pollute more in absolute terms, even though they are
more efficient. Furthermore, there is no evidence for the assumption
that aggregate growth is necessary for improving efficiency. If the
objective is to achieve specific kinds of technological innovation, it
would make more sense to invest in those directly, or incentivize
innovation with policy measures (e.g., caps on carbon and resource
UNCTAD, Robots and industrialization in developing countries, 2016.
Food and Agricultural Organization, State of food insecurity in the world, 2012.
use), rather than to grow the whole economy indiscriminately and
hope for a specific outcome.
We can conclude, then, that the inclusion of Goal 8 as currently
formulated is under‐justified. Certainly, there is no reason for Goal 8
to call for continued GDP growth in every nation, and no reason to call
for continued growth past the point at which it delivers social benefits.
Of course, it is reasonable to call for growth in poorer nations, but this
would only make sense if coupled with a commitment to pro‐poor bias
in the distribution of new income, to be accomplished either directly
by giving the poor more economic power (through say land reform
and higher wages), or indirectly by redistribution (through taxation
and social spending, or through some kind of basic income).
The SDGs do have a goal on reducing inequality (Goal 10). Target
10.1 reads: “By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income
growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than
the national average.”There are a number of problems with this
approach, however. First, the language of Target 10.1 is weak: the
phrase “by 2030”means that existing patterns of pro‐rich distribution
can continue—or even worsen—until 2029, so long as pro‐poor distri-
bution is achieved in the final year. Second, it focuses on relative
rather than absolute distribution of growth, and does not specify a tar-
get rate of income growth for the poor. Even if the incomes of the
poorest 40% rise faster rate than the national average, this is no guar-
antee that the income gap will shrink (indeed, it may even worsen), as
they are starting from a much lower baseline. Third, it depends entirely
on generating new income rather than distributing existing income
more fairly. Given the ecological consequences of growth, it would
make more sense to prioritize the latter approach.
More importantly, in order to ensure that the SDGs' sustainability
objectives are not violated, any call for GDP growth in poorer nations
would have to come along with an acknowledgment that rich nations
need to make dramatic reductions to material throughput, which may
require post‐growth or degrowth strategies.
In light of the above, I propose the following specific changes to
1. Remove Target 8.1 (on GDP growth), or otherwise rewrite so that
it (a) calls for GDP growth specifically in low‐income nations rather
than growth in all nations; (b) specifies that this growth should be
pro‐poor and directed at clear human development outcomes
(poverty reduction, health, education, employment, etc.), beyond
which further growth is unnecessary; and (c) clarifies that there is
no need for continued growth in high‐income nations, in terms
of human development.
2. Strengthen Target 12.2 (on sustainable consumption and produc-
tion) with specific quantified goals for global material footprint
(ideally, reduction down to 50 billion tons per year) and material
footprint per capita, building on work by Bringezu (2015),
Dittrich et al. (2012) and, in particular, the UNEP International
Resource Panel (UNEP, 2014).
3. Strengthen Target 8.4 (on resource efficiency) with specific quanti-
fied goals for reducing material footprint per GDP, differentiated
by country income group, with targets for relative decoupling in
poorer nations (see UNCTAD, 2012, pp. 74–75) and absolute
decoupling in richer nations.
4. Strengthen Target 10.1 (on inequality) so that (a) reductions of
inequality begin with immediate effect, rather than being poten-
tially delayed to 2029; (b) it is focused on closing the absolute
income gap, with quantified targets; and (c) it emphasizes the
importance of prioritizing fairer distribution of existing GDP.
Given the data presented in the preceding sections, it is clear that
achieving the sustainability objectives of the SDGs requires that we
rethink aggregate global economic growth as a development strategy.
The human development objectives of the SDGs can be more safely
and feasibly achieved by shifting a portion of global income from richer
nations to poorer nations. In other words, reducing global income
inequality becomes the only reasonable method by which the SDGs
can accomplish the human development objectives without violating
the sustainability objectives. Meaningful reductions in global inequality
can be achieved by changing the rules of the world economy to make it
fairer for developing countries (Hickel, 2017), for example by:
1. Implementing a global minimum wage system, for example, pegged
at 50% of each nation's median income, allowing poor nations to
retain their comparative advantage in wages while at the same
time commanding a fairer price for the labour they contribute to
international trade (Cope & Kerswell, 2016; Hickel, 2013)
2. Making international trade fairer by rectifying imbalances in
bargaining power in the World Trade Organization, phasing out
the agricultural subsidy regime in the US and EU, reducing patent
licensing fees, and allowing poor nations to use tariffs to protect
infant industries (Stiglitz, 2002; UNCTAD, 1999)
3. Cancelling odious or otherwise unpayable external debt in global
South nations to allow them to retain a greater proportion of their
annual GDP and shift their budgets from interest payments on old
loans to social spending and poverty reduction
4. Closing down tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions in order to end
illicit financial flows out of global South nations (Kar & Spanjers,
2015; Pogge & Mehta, 2016)
5. Democratizing key institutions of global economic governance
such as the World Bank and the IMF, so that global South coun-
tries have a fairer voice in macroeconomic policy decisions that
affect them (Chang, 2010; Stiglitz, 2002).
An alternative approach would be to tax specific international revenue
and resource flows (i.e., a financial transaction tax, a land value tax, a
carbon tax, a pollution tax, a global minimum corporate tax, and a
resource extraction tax) and use the yields to implement an interna-
tional basic income. A basic income of $1.25 per day (2005 PPP) for
every human would achieve Goal 1 immediately. Indeed, given the
threat of technological unemployment, this may prove to be a neces-
sary mechanism for preventing humanitarian crisis if jobs disappear
across the South.
Unfortunately, none of these concerns are adequately addressed
by the SDGs. Target 8.5 calls for “decent work for all”and “equal
pay for work of equal value,”and Target 10.4 calls for “wage and social
protection policies,”but there are no quantified objectives and no
mention of global standards. Targets 2a and 10a call for fairer trade
rules, but these have been included only as supplementary or subordi-
nate objectives. Target 10.6 calls for “enhanced representation and
voice for developing countries in decision making in global interna-
tional economic and financial institutions,”but provides no objectives
for shifting voting power. Target 17.1 calls for improving domestic
capacity for tax collection, but offers no concrete policy objectives
(such as country‐by‐country reporting, global minimum corporate
tax, etc) and says nothing about the tax haven system controlled
mostly by rich countries. Target 17.4 calls for debt “restructuring,”
but says nothing about debt cancellation.
Most importantly, resolving the contradictions of the SDGs
requires rethinking the use of GDP as an indicator of progress—a pur-
pose it was never intended to serve (Costanza, Hart, Posner, &
Talberth, 2009; Fioramonti, 2013; Kuznets, 1934; Stiglitz, Sen, &
Fitoussi, 2010). During the SDG negotiations, some parties called for
GDP to be replaced with a more balanced indicator, but this demand
was not meaningfully incorporated into the final document. Target
17.19 reads: “By 2030, build on existing initiatives to develop mea-
surements of progress on sustainable development that complement
gross domestic product and support statistical capacity‐building in
developing countries.”The term “complement”here means that GDP
is to remain the dominant indicator of progress, whereas the phrase
“by 2030”effectively shelves the problem until 2029. If we are to find
real pathways towards ecological sustainability, the United Nations
will need to revisit this question with urgency. Target 17.9 will need
to be strengthened to call for GDP to be phased out as a primary mea-
sure of progress by 2030 and replaced by indicators designed to
incentivize the pursuit of human well‐being within planetary bound-
aries (O'Neill et al., 2018).
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How to cite this article: Hickel J. The contradiction of the
sustainable development goals: Growth versus ecology on a
finite planet. Sustainable Development. 2019;1–12. https://