Is green growth happening?

Source: Cabinet Office | Flickr

by Timothée Parrique

If you follow discussions about climate change, you must have heard of decoupling. The term refers to the possibility of detaching Growth Domestic Product (GDP) from environmental pressures. The green growth everyone talks about these days presumes that economic activities can be decoupled from ecological damage. 

Studies on decoupling don’t usually become viral, but one did. In March 2019, Corinne Le Quéré from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK and nine other scholars published an article in Nature titled “Drivers of declining CO2 emissions in 18 developed economies.” 

This is one among many – 835 to be precise – according to an exhaustive review of the literature. What makes this study special is how often it has been cited online to acclaim green growth. A careful reading of the article, however, gives a more nuanced impression. 

The decoupling rates are minuscule

The study analyses 18 developed economies (Sweden, Romania, France, Ireland, Spain, UK, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Italy, United States, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Finland, and Croatia) between 2005 and 2015, finding that emissions decreased by a median -2.4% per year during that decade. 

This is tiny – three times smaller than the yearly 7.6% cut of global emissions that would be necessary to meet 1.5°C Paris target (and this number is from 2019; the cuts would need to be even larger today). One striking example is France. The study indicates that France decreased its consumption-based emissions by a yearly -1.9% over the period with barely any GDP growth (+0.9%). Now compare this to the French climate target, which is to reach 80 MtCO2 by 2050, an 80% reduction compared to 2019 levels of emissions.     

The UK is another case in point. The country is often lauded to have achieved the fastest experience of decoupling on Earth. In the Le Quéré study, its consumption-based emissions decreased by -2.1% per year between 2005 and 2015 with positive GDP rates of around 1.1%. This is not much in the way of decoupling; the country has pledged to reduce emissions by twice that amount (5.1% per year). To actually comply with the Paris Agreement, the UK must achieve a yearly 13% cut in emissions, starting now and for the decades to come. This is much – much – more than what green growth can provide.   

The authors themselves err on the side of caution: “as significant as they have been, the emissions reductions observed […] fall a long way short of the deep and rapid global decarbonization of the energy system implied by the Paris Agreement temperature goals, especially given the increases in global CO2 emissions in 2017 and 2018, and the slowdown of decarbonization in Europe since 2014.” Data from this year supports the authors’ precaution: de-carbonisation in many high-income economies has slowed down after 2015.  

The fact that these rates are so small is worrying because we’re dealing here with the supposedly best country cases of decoupling. Assuming these rates can now suddenly accelerate would be like expecting Usain Bolt to triple his running speed. Even more unlikely, we would need all countries in the world to match the triple of these record levels.  

A “sustainable” economy in any meaningful understanding of the term must consider all the complex interactions it has with ecosystems, and not only carbon

Minuscule is a long way from enough   

In March 2021, the authors published a new study showing that 64 countries managed to cut their CO2 emissions by 0.16 GtCO2 every year between 2016 and 2019. This is good, but again, not good enough. And not good enough has dire consequences. To be precise, this is one tenth of what would be needed at the global level to meet the Paris climate goals; and if 64 countries managed to reduce emissions, 150 others did not. The latter increased their emissions by 0.37 GtCO2 each year. Put the two numbers together and you realise that global emissions have actually been growing by 0.21 billion tonnes per year. 

This puts pressure on high-income economies. For developing countries to be able to increase their ecological footprint, affluent nations must reduce theirs as much as possible. Climate-neutrality at the national level by 2050 is not enough if we want today’s poorest to have the option of increasing their material consumption. And rates of reduction in rich nations of 1-3% are far from enough to compensate for the surge in resource use currently taking place in the global South.

This is only fair considering historical emissions. The global North is responsible for 92% of excess global CO2 emissions (the ones past the 350ppm threshold). For example, France has already overshot its fair share of the climate budget by 29.4 GtCO2. The Le Quéré study shows that it has decreased its emissions by 10 MtCO2 every year between 2005 and 2015. At that pace, and assuming carbon neutrality, it would take almost three millennia for France to resorb its climate debt.  

Green growth without growth 

Emissions in the 18 studied countries decreased by -2.4% each year, but how big was GDP growth during that period? The answer: small. These economies grew by a median +1.1%. Denmark, Italy, and Spain are leading the decoupling pack with yearly carbon reductions of -3.7%, -3.3%, and -3.2% respectively. This, however, can hardly be called green growth because these economies barely grew – or actually receded (+0.6% of GDP in the case of Denmark, -3.3% for Italy, and -3.2% for Spain).  

The authors acknowledge that this period is nothing extraordinary: “These reductions in the energy intensity of GDP in 2005-2015 do no stand out compared to similar reductions observed since the 1970s, indicating that decreases in energy use in the peak-and-decline group could be explained at least in part by the lower growth in GDP.” 

So, the paper most popularly cited to assert that carbon-free economic growth is possible also shows that part of the decarbonisation is due to the fact that there was little or no growth. It comes as no surprise then that, using simulations, the authors estimate that “if GDP returns to strong growth in the peak-and-decline group, reductions in energy use may weaken or be reversed unless strong climate and energy policies are implemented.” 

Sustainability is more than just carbon 

The authors’ study is about carbon, but carbon is one environmental problem among many others. Unfortunately, it is the only one that is adequately researched, with 80% of decoupling studies focusing on primary energy and greenhouse gases. This leaves only a few studies that have been conducted on other aspects of ecological breakdown, including material use, water use, land change, water pollution, waste, and biodiversity loss. 

While there are a few inspiring stories of decoupling concerning carbon emissions, studies that track other indicators tell us a different story, one in which the economy is still strongly coupled with biophysical throughput. Materials are a good case in point. If the world economy was gradually de-materializing in the 20th century, this trend has since been reversing in the last two decades. This alone should temper optimism concerning an assumption of endless supplies of renewable energy, which after all, are dependent on the mining of finite quantities of minerals.

My point is that a “sustainable” economy in any meaningful understanding of the term must consider all the complex interactions it has with ecosystems, and not only carbon. A genuinely sustainable economy should not only be carbon neutral, but also remains within the regenerative capacities of all renewable resources, within the acceptable stocks of non-renewable resources, and within the assimilative capacities of ecosystems. Although sustainability ought to be understood as being about much more than only the condition of the biophysical environment, it seems evident that living within planetary boundaries is a minimum, non-negotiable condition for any kind of long-lasting prosperity.  

Since GDP remains significantly coupled with carbon emissions and other environmental pressures, a good way of limiting ecological wreckage is to put limits on the scale of the economy

Temporary decoupling

Mitigating environmental pressures in a growing economy not only implies achieving absolute decoupling from GDP, but also requires maintaining such decoupling in time for as long as the economy grows (recalling that emissions must be reduced by at least 7.6% every year from now on). Said differently, continuous economic growth requires a permanent absolute decoupling between GDP growth and environmental pressures. Yet, in the same way that economic growth and environmental pressures can decouple at one point in time, they can just as easily recouple later on. 

This happens more often than we think. Let’s reflect upon the time when the International Energy Agency declared that decoupling was “confirmed” after observing a levelling of global emissions in 2015 and 2016. Yet, this decoupling was short-lived. In fact, it was mainly due to China moving from coal to oil and gas at the same time that the United States was shifting to shale gas. The shift was temporary. After that, economic growth recoupled with carbon emissions.

Situations of recoupling can also happen with renewables. In the decade between 2005 and 2015, Austria, Finland, and Sweden greened their energy mix and, as a result, lowered their emissions. But once this shift is complete, further growth will require an expansion of the energy infrastructure, which will imply additional environmental pressures. In fact, this is what happened after the studied period. Austria decreased its emissions by -0.6% in 2006-2010 and -1.6% in 2011-2015, but emissions returned  positive by +0.3% in 2016-2019. A similar story took place in Finland and Sweden; the rates of reduction accelerated between 2006 and 2015 but slowed down after that.

Some commentators hypothesized that the return of economic growth after the pandemic would be green, or at least, greener. Yet, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tons in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history – reversing most of the decline caused by the pandemic. The lesson from the corona crisis is this: slight oscillations from light to heavy ecological beating are not enough – we need to radically and immediately transform the economy.  

Do we need environmental policies? 

Yes, we do and the Le Quéré paper is clear on that. We need energy and climate policies, “particularly if GDP growth increases,” the authors write. But what if capping GDP was itself considered an acceptable climate policy? This is the idea of degrowth. Since GDP remains significantly coupled with carbon emissions and other environmental pressures, a good way of limiting ecological wreckage is to put limits on the scale of the economy. If carbon emissions decreased by -2.4% with a +1.1% rise in GDP growth, imagine how faster they could be reduced if economic growth was not prioritised above the unthinkable risks of runaway ecological breakdown. 

We know that stopping the growth machine leads to drastic emissions cuts because it happened during the pandemic. The slowdown of economic activity led to a historical reduction of global emissions: -7% compared to 2019. What happened through crisis could also take place in a more managed fashion in the form of a prosperity without growth in countries consuming more than their fair share of the global carbon budget. Of course, GDP is an indicator, not a policy button. There is thus a need for a diversity of sufficiency-oriented policies that will limit production and consumption, and speculative finance, especially in natural resource intensive sectors. 

We should target emissions where they currently are, while ensuring that efficiency gains are not cancelled by more demand through rebound effects. For example, we could degrow aviation by setting airport quotas on the number of flights per day, restricting the construction of new airports and runways, and introducing a Frequent Flyer Levy (i.e. you get one levy-free first flight every three or four years, but the second flight bears a levy, with its amount doubling for each additional flight). Instead of hoping that the expansion of the aviation sector decouples from planetary damage, we could limit the scale of that sector to directly lower its emissions.  

Decoupling is not enough

In sum, Le Quéré et al. (2020) report an observed decoupling in 18 developed countries between 2005 and 2015. But there are a few caveats. First, the rates of decoupling are a long way short of reaching even the most modest of national climate targets. Second, they are even more insufficient considering redistributive efforts required to achieve climate justice. Third, part of that decoupling is explained by low rates of economic growth. Fourth, the study period is limited and there is little to guarantee that what decoupling may have occurred will not recouple later on. And finally, the analysis is only about carbon and does not account for other environmental pressures.

So, is green growth happening? The answer is no, not really. As of today, economic growth is still a vector of resource use and environmental degradation. In high-income countries, the pursuit of additional growth might not even be socially beneficial, and particularly so if accompanied by widening inequality. Considering the increasing demand for resources in the most disadvantaged regions of the world, the continued obsession with growth in already affluent nations is becoming untenable. 

Decoupling is simply not enough. Instead of struggling to “green” expanding economies, we should reroute the task by mobilizing sufficiency-oriented strategies like degrowth and post-growth. Eventually, both efficiency and sufficiency are dearly needed. One thing is resoundingly clear, what we need to do away with is the growth-at-all-cost mentality that sacrifices social-ecological health to prioritize GDP above all else.

Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden). Titled “The political economy of degrowth” (2020), his dissertation explores the economic implications of the ideas of degrowth and post-growth. Tim is also the lead author of “Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth” (2019), a report published by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 19-22, 2010. Image: The City Project Creative Commons License

by Helen Adams and Karen E McNamara

The Paris Agreement, drawn up at COP 21 in 2015, clearly connects climate action to human rights, and in particular to the rights of marginalized groups—Indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and women. As mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change have accelerated, so have the critiques of currently dominant approaches (e.g. technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives) to reduce climate change risks which are often justified through global benefits but ultimately have negative consequences at the local level. These critiques are important, as they can help a global movement for climate action learn from mistakes made by mitigation and adaptation responses in the past. This article re-issues a global call for pro-poor mitigation and adaptation responses now and into the future.

Climate change mitigation is about preventing future climate change and exposure to associated negative impacts and includes measures like increasing carbon sinks, transition to alternative energy sources, and storage mechanisms for carbon emissions. Adaptation activities seek to protect communities from the severe climate change impacts that are already programmed into the climate system, and range from engineering and policy to ecosystem- and community-based approaches.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses. These “insults and injuries of intervention,” as put by Marino and Ribot, have to be understood and avoided for anyone who takes seriously the struggle for both an equitable and sustainable future. As such, the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation and adaptation should be a crucial piece in any study of the linked climate-society system. This article highlights some of the key academic literature on the distribution of benefits and disadvantages of mitigation and adaptation efforts. We consider the ways in which this distribution of benefits and disadvantages is inequitable and damaging for marginalized communities, even though it also differs from business-as-usual development, and conclude with some recommendations on how to redress this imbalance.

Top-down actions justified by a global good

Mitigation projects driven by global and national-level priorities and donor agencies can have far-reaching negative implications at the local level. The global poor are often displaced by projects that seek to deliver alternative energy sources (de Sherbinin et al), particularly by wind turbine parks and agricultural production for bio-fuels. In both privileged and marginalized nation-states, the geographically and politically marginalized within the country are disproportionately exposed to the risks of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation (Shrader-Frechette), promoted as a form of clean energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Similar issues may arise with the proliferation of the much-disputed technology of carbon capture and storage, as geologically-stable sites are identified for storage of emissions, and better resourced local populations are more equipped (politically and financially) to resist projects based on perceived or actual risks (IPCC).

Technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world.

Adaptation, in contrast to mitigation, is not implemented at the local level for a ‘global good’ but for the assumed benefit of local socioenvironmental systems’ adaptation to climate change. Still, technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world (e.g. coastal protection, desalination plants, dam construction; see Kates et al). These engineering interventions are targeted at particular climate change impacts, most notably sea level rise. Many of these “hard” adaptation initiatives have come under increasing attack for not only their mixed success but also, as researchers Barnett and O’Neill argue in their article “Maladaptation”, for hampering rather than strengthening local capacity for adaptation. Often, the most vulnerable bear the brunt of these actions—by being displaced to make way for large-scale “protective” infrastructure (such as dams) or through diminishing livelihood resources as a consequence of large constructions (such as sea walls that change local environments).

In addition to technical and large-scale infrastructural adaptation, migration is increasingly drawn upon as an adaption option, and such initiatives often suffer from the same top-down approach as other adaptation strategies. For example, the previous Government in the Maldives used climate change as a way of justifying the unpopular government objective of consolidating the population from 200 dispersed islands to 15 to 20 population centres (Kothari). Funded by the UK Government, the recent Foresight project, which examined these issues globally, highlighted the potential for migration to be a positive adaptation solution and an “extremely effective way to build long-term resilience.” However, this position is problematic when one considers rights to land and place-based culture for those expected to leave their customary homelands, as McNamara and Gibson show in a study of how Pacific Island ambassadors to the United Nations resisted any notions of “climate refugees” or mass exodus from their homelands. The communities, and even entire countries, that are considered for this “positive ‘transformational’ adaptation to environmental change,” in the words of the Foresight project, are almost invariably the poorest communities on the planet. As Farbotko and Lazrus have shown, based on years of research in Tuvalu, the effect of such a position is to silence those affected who do not wish to relocate.

Reinforcing damaging power dynamics at the local scale

Partly as a reaction to the failure of some of these large infrastructural adaptation interventions, adaptation researchers and local communities in the Global South have proposed community-based adaptation projects for protecting wellbeing and livelihoods (Schipper et al). Such projects are often supported financially by affluent nations which indicates that institutions in the Global North also recognize marginalized communities as sites of knowledge and resilience. Community-based adaptation is an established academic field and recent publications have focused on “scaling-up” the lessons learned from such practices (Schipper et al). But attempts to scale up can be problematic: for example, centrally planned adaptation can be insensitive to the dynamics of specific communities (despite their direct focus on community) and lack critical analysis of the long-term success of such interventions (Buggy & McNamara).

Similar issues arise in mitigation projects for the Clean Development Mechanisms such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing forests). Research has shown that such projects are often driven by outside interests, not local users, and tend to lead to increased centralization of land entitlements (Beymer-Farris & Bassett). In Uganda, large REDD-funded projects from government-backed Norwegian companies exclude local communities and other actors from forestry resources that are necessary for local and national livelihoods (Lyons & Westoby). Marginalized populations with already precarious livelihoods are being further marginalized in order to offset the emissions of richer, heavily-polluting countries. Other research has shown that community-based adaptation projects often ignore unequal access to livelihood resources and land tenure, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cannon), inequitable participation in decision-making processes (McDermott et al), and political disenfranchizement and elite capture (Dutta). As such, these projects often favour local elites, create community rifts, and deepen social differentiation and exclusion (Ensor & Berger).

Therefore, many attempts to emphasize communities as the scale for adaptation projects are flawed from the outset. Adaptation projects need to criticize and act to reverse the social dynamics, governance structures, and power relations that impact on and often cause vulnerability.

Blindness to the root causes of vulnerability

Adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Responses to climate change driven by actors in the Global North, according to Pelling in his book Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation, too often focus on “symptoms of vulnerability and risk”, rather than causes. Through adopting a simplified view of the complex causes of climate change, such actors can favour responses that reinforce the socio-political structures that have caused the conditions of vulnerability and risk in the first place (O’Brien & Leichenko). Pelling, again in his book, makes a poignant point: Privileged parts of global society thus shape responses to climate change into “limited to efforts that promote action to survive better with, rather than seek change to, the social and political structures that shape life chances”. In doing so, adaptation researchers and other actors are normalizing conditions of poverty and inequitable power relations (Ribot). This means that adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Climate change responses at all scales are playing into and reinforcing ideas of the ‘Other’ (Said), conceptualizing certain groups of people as more deserving of suffering. Western nations with generally high adaptive capacity tend to take for granted that certain populations are vulnerable and exposed, rather than acknowledge that conditions of vulnerability are produced by uneven global systems of development, trade, and consumption (Ribot). There is even a tendency for Western governments to use the supposed resilience of local communities to justify unequal sociopolitical relations and shirk from their responsibility for climate change and poor communities’ vulnerability to its impacts.

Ways forward

Academic research on climate change mitigation and adaptation suggests various approaches to influencing policy, NGOs, development corporations, and climate finance institutions to responses to climate change that overcome, rather than deepen, current inequalities. However, as we have highlighted here, climate change responses at various scales have only deepened inequalities. We therefore want to propose a series of steps to address these issues.

No adaptation or mitigation response is neutral.

First, no adaptation or mitigation response is neutral, and this needs to be recognized at all scales and by all people working on mitigation and/or adaptation issues. Instead, such responses are highly politicized and involve trade-offs (mostly to the detriment of the most marginalized in society), which is recognized in the statement in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement. Researchers and practitioners need to find ways of improving the equity in conditions between and within countries. This will mean fewer top-down, technocratic approaches and more attention paid to the political processes justifying or enabling any intervention.

Second, researchers and practitioners must work to critically understand, respond to, and engage community-level social and power dynamics when designing and implementing adaptation projects. The impacts of climate change and responses to them, will lead to a redistribution of access to rights, land and resources, and thus there is a continued need to actively fight for an equitable redistribution of entitlements, not their further concentration in the hands of the already powerful.

Third, to achieve these above objectives, researchers, activists, and practitioners need to continue to make clear that the majority of climate change adaptation and mitigation responses are working to protect the consumption patterns of high-emitting, industrialized countries. What is required instead is a significant shift towards rights and responsibilities for action.

Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better.

Until the aspirations and well-being of the poor and marginalized are placed centre stage in pro-poor mitigation and adaptation, the deeply-entrenched colonial legacies and inequitable hierarchical systems will mean that the most marginalized continue to suffer from both climate change and its “solutions.” Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better, and as such can be used to radically alter the current distribution of power and access to livelihood resources. To do anything else is scratching the surface at best, and at worst endorsing and deepening pre-existing inequalities.

Karen E McNamara is a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia. As a human geographer, Karen examines how environmental change impacts people’s livelihoods throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Her research focuses on climate change adaptation, human mobility, and Indigenous knowledge.

Helen Adams is a lecturer at Kings College London, UK. Helen is an environmental social scientist working on the subjective dimensions of human interactions with environmental change, with a focus on marginal regions of low income countries. Helen is a Contributing Author on the Human Security chapter in the IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2.