Without leaving growth behind, rich countries are on track to blow up their carbon budget 27 times.
I want to use this food for thought piece to look at recent evidence for one of the most controversial and important debates in economics and sustainability science: The question, whether decoupling economic growth (growing production and consumption of goods and services) from its climate effects is possible. I am particularly interested to know whether so-called green growth is possible for countries of the Global North, who bear the major historical responsibility for (already happening) climate breakdown . Why is this question crucial? Because most attempts to minimize climate breakdown (as well as most IPCC scenarios) are relying on the assumption that we can continue to grow our economies globally while achieving the 1.5° target. Some go even further to argue that we depend on growth to reduce emissions. Recently, a set of graphs was going viral on social media which confirms that strong growth and emission reductions can go together in six high-income economies . The scissor-like graphs describe how GDP per capita is growing while per capita emissions are falling:
The data is clear: six countries have decoupled their growth path from emissions during the observed period, but what’s the conclusion? Is the green growth puzzle now finally solved so we can lean back and let the economy grow its way towards decarbonization? What’s missing here to help us judge if the mentioned countries are on a truly green pathway is a measurement stick (a final emissions target and the required reduction curve). This is a crucial misunderstanding: The green growth question is not whether decoupling is happening somewhere ever for some time. Rather, we need to know whether decoupling is happening on a sufficiently rapid scale and if we can rely on it consistently for the next decades to reach the agreed 1.5° target . A recent article by Vogel and Hickel looks exactly at this question, and I want to present you with the sobering findings that put the image above into a larger context .
The authors took the present emission reduction pathways from these six and some more high-income countries of the Global North (starting at 2013) and show, that the achieved decoupling is nowhere near the required reduction pathways. The current speed of emissions reduction (the one that is implied as successful green growth by the former picture) will take these countries 220 years to meet their targets. At this speed, these countries carbon budgets are blown up almost 30 times. We need to understand that every percent of growth makes rapid decarbonization more difficult and eats up the savings by technological advances.
There are several ways to respond to that reality check: One is to abolish the fair share principle and let rich countries of the Global North continue at the expense of the Global South. Another one is to abolish the 1.5° target. Both conclusions are incompatible with human rights and a livable future. The last resort of green growth belief is to argue that some negative emissions technology will absorb the carbon we were not able to reduce in the first place. This one is a dangerous gamble and not in line with the precautionary principle, given that we don’t know if scaling up these technologies is working (not even to speak of other social and ecological implications). All three of these responses are in fact “discourses of climate delay” leading us literally into a dead end .
Another option is to decide to act like a reasonable grown up, realize and acknowledge you’ve been driving into an impasse for quite some time and make a turnaround, even if its uncomfortable. Leaving the impasse requires new maps, a fundamental reorientation. Since there are no easy answers to find a way out towards a viable post-growth economy, we require all the brainpower and action presently still stuck in the growth illusion. I let the authors of the study conclude: “…high-income countries will need to pursue post-growth demand-reduction strategies, reorienting the economy towards sufficiency, equity, and human wellbeing, while also accelerating technological change and efficiency improvements” [3, p. 759].
 Jason Hickel (2020): Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. In: Lancet Planetary Health. Vol. 4 (9).
 Max Roser, https://twitter.com/MaxCRoser/status/1454790570593955840
 Timothée Parrique et al. (2019): Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. European Environmental Bureau. https://eeb.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Decoupling-Debunked.pdf
 Jefim Vogel, Jason Hickel (2023): Is green growth happening? An empirical analysis of
achieved versus Paris-compliant CO2–GDP decoupling in high-income countries. In: Lancet Planet Health 2023, 7:e759-69. Available here: https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanplh/PIIS2542-5196(23)00174-2.pdf
 Lamb, WF, Mattioli, G, Levi, S et al. (7 more authors) (2020) Discourses of climate delay. Global Sustainability, 3. e17. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342596080_Discourses_of_climate_delay
Author: Sven-David Pfau, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien / Austria
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