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The decoupling debate: can economic growth really continue without emission increases?


A year ago, in one of our most popular web articles, our group, Steady State Manchester took issue with claims from New Climate Economy (NCE) that there was no conflict between climate change mitigation and continued economic growth. NCE argued that by taking action on climate change economic growth could be boosted. While NCE marshalled a lot of useful information on the how of emissions reduction, emphasising the role of cities, investment in clean energy, and adopting more efficient technologies in aviation and shipping, their argument relies on the idea that economic (i.e. GDP) growth can be decoupled from the growth in GHG emissions. While the emphasis here is on the relationship between GDP and GHG emissions, similar analyses are needed for the material flows underpinning transgression of the otherplanetary boundaries, in addition to climate change.

There are two kinds of decoupling1Relative decoupling means that the rate at which emissions increase is lower than the rate at which GDP decreases. That is not a lot of help in the climate crisis, since under relative decoupling, if there is economic growth, then GHGs continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, contributing to the already high risk of runaway global warming. Absolute decoupling on the other hand would mean that as the economy grew, emissions didn’t. If it could be demonstrated, then we might want to rethink our critique of endless economic growth.

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