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Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Thomas Hawk

If making the degrowth case was like baking a cake, disproving the plausibility of green growth would be the equivalent of turning the oven on. Decoupling is only “a myth” or “a fantasy,” some would say, a notorious fallacy that requires as much attention as the confabulations of Flat Earthers. And yet, faith in decoupling is strengthening in environmental agendas all around the world, including the OECD, European Commission, World Bank, UNEP, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals where it even has its own target.

War of the de- words

The concepts of “degrowth” and “decoupling” are actually the same age. Décroissance (the French ancestor of degrowth) was born at a colloquium in 2002 and decoupling first adopted by the OECD in 2001. Since then, the squabbling has been incessant. Decouplers tout efficiency as a recipe for more goods and services at a lower environmental cost while degrowthers plead for sufficiency, arguing that less commodities is the only road to sustainability.

Reading over government reports today, it would seem that decoupling has won. But has it really? In a recent report (Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth), my co-authors and I have enquired to determine if the scientific foundations behind the decoupling hypothesis were robust. After reviewing the bulk of the latest empirical studies, our finding is clear: the decoupling literature is a haystack without a needle.

The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of Gross Domestic Product from all critical environmental pressures. Problem is: there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling having ever happened. 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.

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