No 2064 Posted by fw, September 30, 2017
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In Chapter 4, ecological economist Tim Jackson explored the dilemma of growth, which he framed this way:
“on the one hand, continued growth looks ecologically unsustainable”;
“on the other, it appears essential for lasting prosperity”.
Is there any way out of “this seemingly intractable impasse?” he wondered.
This question provides a gateway to Section 1, Jackson’s Introduction to Chapter 5, “The Myth of Decoupling.”
The term ‘decouple’ means to separate, disengage, or dissociate (something) from (something) else. In the context of this chapter, decoupling refers to the impact of economic activity on resource use and/or carbon emission levels.
Jackson introduces Chapter 5 with this opening paragraph:
“The conventional response to the dilemma of growth is to appeal to the concept of ‘decoupling’. More efficient production processes. More sustainable goods and services. More profit with less stuff. Smart growth; green growth; sustainable growth: this is the promise of decoupling.”
He immediately focuses our attention on the crucial difference between relative and absolute decoupling:
The former “signals an improvement in the efficiency of the economy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re using fewer materials (or emitting fewer pollutants) overall.”
The latter “refers to the situation when resource use (or emissions) decline in absolute terms, even as economic output continues to rise.”
If the goal is to meet our ecological limits (by reducing carbon emissions), then absolute decoupling provides an “escape from the dilemma of growth”. Moreover, to achieve the Paris target of 1.5°C global warming, global CO2 emissions must be cut from the current (2016) level of about 36 billion tons to zero by mid-century. We’re facing a massive decoupling challenge.
Complicating matters are the diametrically opposed positions of columnists Paul Krugman of the New York Times and The Guardian’s George Monbiot over the merits of relative versus absolute decoupling at a global scale. Krugman challenges the idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible; Monbiot asserts that economic growth is incompatible with absolute decoupling.
To help shed more light than heat on the debate, Jackson reframes the question from what it’s not to what it should be:
“The question is whether we can achieve enough [carbon] efficiency gains in the future to continue to pursue economic growth, indefinitely, while still remaining within the ‘safe operating space’ of a finite planet.”
Although improved, “This question depends on so many imponderables that it is difficult, at first, to get a clear handle on it.” To reduce some of this confusion, Jackson turns to arithmetic:
“If the rate of increase in [carbon] efficiency is greater than the rate of economic growth, then typically speaking the overall material throughput will decline. If not, then it won’t.” To illustrate the relationship between carbon efficiency and relative versus absolute decoupling, Jackson presents these two examples:
If the carbon efficiency* of the economy increases at 2 per cent per year and economic output rises at 3 per cent per year, then the overall level of carbon emissions will rise. We will have relative but not absolute decoupling. [*A carbon efficient economy is one that emits as little carbon as possible.]
If the carbon efficiency rises at 3 per cent per year and the economy grows at 2 per cent per year, then the overall level of carbon emissions will decline and we’ll have achieved absolute decoupling.
The word “Myth” in Jackson’s title for Chapter 5 conveys his own position that the appeal to decoupling as an escape from the dilemma of growth is “ far from convincing.” Which is not to suggest, he adds, that decoupling is unnecessary or impossible – in fact, “decoupling is vital with or without economic growth.”
We must decouple (dissociate) economic activity from a rise in carbon emissions. But we dare not presume that economic life in a deregulated capitalist system will inevitably lead to higher efficiencies and lower carbon emissions.
We need “a much more nuanced approach to decoupling,” declares Jackson, and the other sections in this chapter will address that concern.