Citizen Action Monitor

From an historical perspective, Tim Jackson finds no reliable, conclusive evidence for relative decoupling

The world’s input amount of material and energy resources used in production is not declining as fast as the increase in global growth of the economy.

No 2069 Posted by fw, October 5, 2017

To access all other synopses from Prosperity without Growth, click on the Tab titled “Prosperity without Growth” — Links to All Posts in the top left margin. 

In my synopsis of Section 1, Jackson’s Introduction to Chapter 5, he concluded:

“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.”

In today’s synopsis, Section 2, Chapter 5, titled, Relative decoupling in historical perspective, Jackson reviews the historical record for evidence of efficiency-driven relative decoupling as a potential solution to the dilemma of growth.

Jackson’s use of jargon was a formidable challenge for me in this section. His failure to define unfamiliar terms drove me to find definitions from external sources. As a result, I was never certain whether the definitions I found fit Jackson’s intended meaning. (The definitions I found appear at the end of this post. The five terms are: resource intensity, carbon intensity, carbon efficiency, energy intensity, and primary energy.

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Relative decoupling in historical perspective, a synopsis, from Chapter 5, “The Myth of Decoupling” of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

In his Introduction to Chapter 5, Tim Jackson referred to relative decoupling as an improvement in efficiency of the economy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean using fewer materials or emitting fewer pollutants overall.

In a definitional statement to start this section on relative decoupling, Jackson modifies his introductory definition somewhat, but the meaning remains pretty much the same —

“… relative decoupling is about doing more with less: more economic activity with less environmental damage; more goods and services with fewer resource inputs and fewer emissions. At heart, it’s about doing things more efficiently.”

Efficiency is a key term in both. Efficiency is music to the ears of economists. But is efficiency-driven relative decoupling a potential solution to the dilemma of growth?

Producing more outputs with lower resource and energy inputs reduces production costs, and thereby improves efficiency, This may work at the company level, but does it bring overall efficiency gains at a global level? That’s the “critical question” says Jackson.

Jackson emphasizes:

“… relative decoupling is barely half the story. It measures only the resource use (or emissions) per unit of economic output. For relative decoupling to offer any way at all out of the dilemma of growth, the resource intensity of the economy must decline at least as fast as economic output rises. And efficiency must continue to improve as the economy grows, if overall burdens aren’t to increase. Ultimately, we need to demonstrate not relative but absolute decoupling of resource use from economic growth. Historical evidence of this is much harder to find.”

To put it more succinctly and simply, for relative decoupling to occur, the world’s input amount of material and energy resources used in production must decline as fast the global growth of the economy.

From a historical perspective, is there any evidence for relative decoupling?

Jackson does find some supportive evidence: the amount of energy used to produce each unit of the world’s economic output has fallen over most of the last half-century.

However, these gains have not been uniform across countries and regions. Yes, rich nations have significantly improved their energy efficiency since the oil price shocks of the 1970s. And China has tripled its energy efficiency since 1980.

Moreover, the historical pattern is murkier in other countries and regions. Units of energy per unit of GDP has increased in Greece, Turkey and Portugal. And results are mixed in emerging economies: Brazil, for example, has experienced a “significant decline” in its economy’s efficiency. The Middle East’s energy intensity has more than doubled.

Of more concern, during the last decade the overall measure of the energy efficiency of a nation’s economy has dropped because the world’s economic growth has shifted to countries that are using more energy to produce each unit of the world’s economic output. Records reveal that between 2004 and 2015, the amount of raw energy used to produce each unit of the world’s economic output declined by less than 0.2 % per year.

Bottom line, from an historical perspective, Jackson finds no reliable evidence for relative decoupling: the world’s input amount of material and energy resources used in production is not declining as fast the increase in global growth of the economy.

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Definition of terms

carbon efficiency — a carbon efficient economy is one that emits as little carbon as possible. 

carbon intensity — refers to the amount of raw energy used to produce each unit of the world’s economic output.

energy intensity — is a measure of the energy efficiency of a nation’s economy. It is calculated as units of energy per unit of GDP. High energy intensities indicate a high price or cost of converting energy into GDP. Low energy intensity indicates a lower price or cost of converting energy into GDP. High energy intensity means high industrial output as portion of GDP. Countries with low energy intensity signifies labor intensive economy,

primary energy – is an energy form found in nature that has not been subjected to any human engineered conversion or transformation process. It is energy contained in raw fuels, and other forms of energy received as input to a system. Primary energy can be non-renewable or renewable.

resource intensity — a measure of the resources — e.g. water, energy, materials — needed for the production, processing and disposal of a unit of good or service, or for the completion of a process or activity; it is therefore a measure of the efficiency of resource use.

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