One of the compromises between the environment and politics is the term ‘green growth’. It’s always turning up in government papers or the documents like the UN’s recent Rio +20 agreement. Green growth is an attempt to turn big environmental problems into opportunities for greater prosperity. If you get it right, you can carry on growing the economy while solving the environmental crisis at the same time… in theory.
For that to happen, you need decoupling. So far, growing economies also have growing consumption of materials, growing energy needs and growing CO2 footprints. To grow without damaging the environment, you need to ‘decouple’ the economy from its ecological impact. You can do that by moving from heavy industry to services, using renewable energy, recycling or increasing energy and material efficiency.
Of course if the economy is growing, then your efficiency gains have to happen faster than the growth, otherwise the new growth just swallows up any gains. If the economy is 10% more efficient than it was a decade ago, but is also 10% larger, then you’re running to stand still. That’s the difference between absolute decoupling and relative decoupling. To actually reduce CO2, energy and material use, the actual amounts we use need to fall in absolute terms.
The graph at the top shows the challenge. (It’s from SERI’s recent report on materials consumption here). The world’s countries are plotted with growth in GDP along the horizontal axis and growth in materials consumption on the vertical axis. If a country falls along the horizontal line in the middle, then its material use and GDP have grown at exactly the same rate. Anywhere below the horizontal shows that you’re making some efficiency gains, but that your overall growth is running ahead of them. Only those countries that are in the blue sector at the bottom have achieved true decoupling, reducing the amount of timber, fossil fuels and metals that they use in absolute terms.
The first thing to notice is that the right hand side of that blue segment is empty – absolute decoupling can only happen in low-growth countries. The other thing to remember is that even those consumer economies that did see absolute decoupling – Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany and the UK – still might not have achieved the holy grail of green growth. They may have simply displaced their materials use elsewhere by importing things they used to produce themselves. A quick glance at imports from China will tell you where materials consumption in Britain went.
We’re going to hear a lot more about green growth, and about decoupling. It’s harder than it looks, and in the long term it’s impossible. Ultimately, we’re not going to get anywhere until we start questioning growth itself.