A note and key references on the Decoupling claim.
It is commonly assumed that technical advance will enable economic growth to continue indefinitely without growth in resource use or ecological impact. However this “tech-fix faith” has now been contradicted by a large amount of evidence. The fundamental assumption underlying these beliefs is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource and ecological demands and impacts. That is, that rate of production and consumption can continue to increase while the resources needed to do this can be reduced to sustainable levels, along with the environmental damage it causes.
This comforting faith is widely held, including by major global institutions.
It is disturbing that this tech-fix faith persists despite the mountain of evidence that it is wrong. Anyone still unaware of this should consult the massive studies by Hickel and Kallis, Parrique et al., and Haberle et al. The second lists over 300 studies and the third lists over 850. (References beow.)
There are areas in which production is being achieved and/or could be with reduced impacts, and transition to renewable energy is an important instance. But what matters is whether the overall output of an economy can be reduced as its GDP rises, which is “absolute” decoupling. The above reviews conclude emphatically that despite constant effort to increase efficiency and cut costs absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring, and that greater recycling effort and transition to “service and information economies” are not at all likely to achieve it. Despite constant effort to improve productivity and efficiency, in general growth of GDP is accompanied by growth in resource use.
The reviews emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. Diminishing resource sources, falling mineral grades, rising energy costs, rising environmental costs etc are requiring more effort and resources to maintain output levels.
The demolition of the decoupling faith has been central in the rise of the Degrowth movement. It has emerged from the basic “limits to growth” argument put by Meadows et al fifty years ago yet largely ignored until recently. There are now a large literature and many agencies and conferences working on the fact that levels of resource use and environmental impact and thus production and consumption are now far beyond sustainable levels, and thus that the only viable solution has to be significant reduction in these levels and in GDP. Capitalism cannot do this.
This would seem to constitute a very substantial case against the “tech-fix” and “Green Growth” believers and the “Ecomodernists”. (For a discussion of additional reasons why tech-fix faith is mistaken see Trainer, 2020, pp. 187-214.)
Haberle, H., et al., (2020), “A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights”, Environmental Research Letters, 15 .
Hickel J. and G. Kallis, (2019), “Is Green Growth Possible?”, New Political Economy, April. DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
Parrique, T., J. Bath, F. Briens, J. Spanenberg, (2019), Decoupling Debunked. Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. A study edited by the European Environment Bureau, EEB, July, Brussels, Belgium. https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/