Citizen Action Monitor

There’s no historical evidence of absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use between 1990-2008

On the contrary, studies show that material consumption and economic output are very strongly coupled.

No 2070 Posted by fw, October 6, 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 2, Chapter 5, titled From an historical perspective, Tim Jackson finds no reliable, conclusive evidence for relative decoupling, ecological economist Tim Jackson declared that 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.

Ultimately”, Jackson writes, “we need to demonstrate not relative but absolute decoupling of resource use from economic growth. Historical evidence of this is much harder to find.”

In today’s synopsis, Section 3, Chapter 5, titled Absolute decoupling in historical perspective, Jackson wastes no time in producing some damning historical evidence to expose economists’ and politicians’ bogus claims that resource use can be decoupled from economic growth.

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Absolute 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 my synopsis of Section 2, Chapter 5, titled From an historical perspective, Tim Jackson finds no reliable, conclusive evidence for relative decoupling, Jackson declared that 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.

Ultimately”, Jackson writes, “we need to demonstrate not relative but absolute decoupling of resource use from economic growth. Historical evidence of this is much harder to find.”

Jackson wastes no time in producing some damning historical evidence to expose economists’ and politicians’ bogus claims that resource use can be decoupled from economic growth:

  • Since 1965, annual CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (and from industry) have more than tripled;
  • Over 60% more CO2 is going into the atmosphere today (2016) than in 1990; and
  • Within the last decade, emissions have been growing at more than 2% per year on average.

Globalized industrialization has contributed to carbon emission “accounting errors”. Jackson explains:

“… even as emissions from rich countries began to stabilize in the early years of the twenty-first century, so emissions from the rest of the world began to accelerate, and these ‘poor country emissions’ had surpassed ‘rich country emissions’ by the time of the financial crisis. Some of this steep increase is due to a massive growth in infrastructure investment in poorer countries. But some of it is associated with exports to richer countries. The reality is we can’t quite unpack what’s going on here, without slightly more sophisticated accounting models than have traditionally been used in policy.”

To circumvent these errors, newer accounting models use ‘footprint’ accounting: all emissions from the consumption of goods and services within a given country or region are added, including emissions themselves that take place elsewhere in the world.

Recent studies using footprint accounting confirm that the less sophisticated national emission accounting failed to provide accurate measures of carbon emission responsibilities:

“The carbon ‘embedded’ in imports just doesn’t make it to the balance sheet. There are typically more carbon emissions associated with affluent lifestyles [using goods imported from China and emerging nations] than ever appear in the numbers reported by the richer nations to the UN”

The difference between the two accounting measures calls into question the reliability of claims of progress towards climate change targets. For example, the UK’s reported 18% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2007 were actually a 9% increase in emissions using the footprint method.

Moreover, notes Jackson, what’s true for carbon emissions is also true for material resource consumption footprints. Past studies of nations’ domestic material resource consumption omitted accounting of raw materials consumed in the offshore production of goods that were subsequently imported by these very same nations.

The reported results of recent studies for almost 200 countries, comparing material footprint with domestic-only material consumption measures, generated “striking” results:

The ‘material footprint’ of OECD nations as a whole rose by almost 50% between 1990 and 2008;

There was no absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use over this period

There was a dip in both domestic material consumption and the material footprint towards the end of 2008, an early indication of the impending financial crisis. Jackson makes this revelatory observation about this 2008 dip:

“… this dip is not in any sense a decoupling of material throughput from the GDP. On the contrary, it shows that material consumption and economic output are still very strongly coupled. Material indicators decline as GDP declines and rise when it does. That is the nature of coupled systems. By 2010, both material indicators are once again rising.”

Global resource extraction continues to rise for many key resources: Production of iron ore, bauxite, copper and cement have all risen faster than world GDP in the last two decades. Production of iron ore and cement have more than tripled. What’s striking about these results is not just the absence of absolute decoupling, but the scarcity of any evidence of relative decoupling either. Global resource intensities have increased significantly across a range of key materials. Resource efficiency is going in the wrong direction. Even relative decoupling just isn’t happening.

Jackson concludes this section on a sobering note:

Despite the historical evidence, ill-informed politicians and mainstream economists continue to mislead the public by insisting that “growing economies become more resource-efficient; efficiency allows us to decouple emissions from growth; so the best way to achieve [emission] targets is to keep growing the economy. This argument is not at all uncommon in the tangled debates about environmental quality and economic growth.”

The message here is not that decoupling is unnecessary. On the contrary, it’s essential. The question is, how much is achievable? How much decoupling is technologically and economically viable? With the right political will, could relative decoupling really proceed fast enough to achieve real reductions in emissions and throughput, and allow for continued economic growth?

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