Greater Manchester climate campaigners not convinced by Pension Fund’s arguments

Steady State Manchester is part of the coalition that came together as Fossil Free Greater Manchester (FFGM) to campaign for the largest local authority pension fund to divest from fossil fuels.  It is consistent with our thinking on the regional economy that this £1.3 Billion, now invested in many dubious entities globally, is redirected to where it is needed, to our local economy and to sectors that rather than damaging the environment and climate, positively contribute to its restoration and protection.  As part of the campaign’s efforts to influence Greater Manchester Pension Fund we have been in correspondence with the chair, councillor Kieran Quinn, who is also leader of Tameside council.  The Fund’s answers do not convince us.

Fossil Free logoPRESS RELEASE from Fossil Free Greater Manchester

Thursday, 14 July

Greater Manchester climate campaigners not convinced by Pension Fund’s arguments.

Fossil Free Greater Manchester is not persuaded by Greater Manchester Pension Fund that its strategy for a low carbon economy can work. And we continue to draw attention to the risks to pensions of continuing to hold fossil fuel investments.

We wrote an open letter in May to councillor Kieran Quinn chair of Greater Manchester Pension Fund. We received a reply (Cllr Quinn response 6th June) and have published our response (below & also available here

We asked cllr Quinn how much money the fund has lost on its coal stocks. He says that there is no loss until the stocks are sold. This is true, but a Micawber strategy of “waiting for mining shares to recover” risks a greater eventual loss while continuing to fund climate damaging coal extraction.

The Fund has not yet agreed to divest its fossil fuel stocks, preferring to engage with companies. We asked what the specific aims of engagement are and what evidence there is for its success. We have not received a direct answer and conclude that the aims are vague and the results unimpressive with respect to the major threat of global climate change.

Mark Burton from Fossil Free Greater Manchester said

While we believe the Fund does want to help reduce the threat of serious climate change, we have seen no evidence that its strategy is anywhere near effective. We call on the Fund to launch a responsibly managed divestment process in keeping with its duties to Fund members and the wider population of Greater Manchester”.


/contd – notes

Notes for Editors

1) Fossil Free Greater Manchester is a coalition of organisations and individuals campaigning for the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF) to take its money out of fossil fuels.  This is part of an international campaign for divestment, thereby building up pressure on governments and business to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – our diminishing chance of averting runaway climate chance.

2) Greater Manchester Pension Fund manages the pooled pension fund of the councils in Greater Manchester and those of some other organisations. It has some £13Bn in assets, of which approximately 10% are invested in fossil fuel stocks, either directly or indirectly via institutions such as banks and insurance companies. It is the largest such fund in the country and has one of the highest proportions of assets in fossil fuel stocks.

3) The text of the full letter follows:

4) For our previous open letter see

Fossil Free Greater Manchester

c/o Manchester Friends of the Earth
Green Fish Resource Centre
46-50 Oldham Street
M4 1LE

Wednesday 6 July, 2016

Councillor Kieran Quinn,
Chair, Greater Manchester Pension Fund,
Guardsman Tony Downes House
5 Manchester Road
M43 6SF

Dear Councillor Quinn,

Your letter of 6 June in response to our open letter.

Thank you for taking the time to write a detailed response to our open letter, which as you have separately acknowledged is consistent with your aspirations for transparency.

We are pleased to see you have taken our concerns seriously and that GMPF aspires to act constructively to mitigate the serious threat of climate change. However, we are not persuaded that the strategy you have adopted towards the fossil fuel companies is adequate to meet this ambition.

Our position

Fossil Free Greater Manchester believes that a responsibly managed divestment from fossil fuel shares is not only key in facilitating a rapid transition to a low carbon economy but also necessary to prevent exposure to large losses for the fund in the long term. We are supported by the 5,000 people who have so far added their names to our petition and shown support for the campaign, showing their concerns about the amount of money GMPF has invested in fossil fuels. Meanwhile, 87 per cent of the 177 local candidates in Greater Manchester, cross party, who responded to the Manchester Friends of the Earth election survey last month also said the Fund should divest from fossil fuels, like 68 other Pension Funds worldwide.

Our concerns regarding GMPF’s strategy

Firstly, we would like to recognise the positive steps GMPF has taken which demonstrate commitment to your ambition. Namely recent investments in wind power, utilising the carbon tracker as well as engagement tactics. However, although these actions demonstrate a desire to achieve positive results we are sceptical about the effectiveness of your strategy. Our concerns were not mitigated when you did not directly answer two of the three questions we asked you; the specific goals of your engagement strategy and what objective results you have achieved through this method.

We do acknowledge that engagement with companies is an essential part of the tool-kit of responsible investors. But a tool-kit needs more than one tool. The evidence is that the fossil fuel companies have shown no moves away from strategies of further exploration and extraction of fossil hydrocarbons. There is no prospect of them becoming integrated energy companies. We note that GMPF apparently divested 95% of its Exxon holdings between 2014 and 2015. This is consistent with the Fund’s ethical duty in the face of this particular company’s failure to respond even to anodyne shareholder resolutions. As advised, we have studied the engagement reports from LAPFF and can find neither objectives nor outcomes commensurate with the scale of change that is necessary in these companies’ practices. The content of the “Aiming for A” resolutions to the three big mining companies, for instance, goes no further than “…reducing operational carbon emissions, maintaining a portfolio of assets resilient to future energy scenarios, and supporting low-carbon energy research and development” but nothing directly related to the enormous emissions from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

Whilst we acknowledge that GMPF will not make losses on coal until stocks are sold, it is important to recognise that their valuation has radically decreased and by holding onto these stocks GMPF runs the risk that these volatile stocks do not recover in the long term. We note the good performance of GMPF in the past, but can’t see evidence that would attribute this to the Fund’s high exposure to fossil fuels. The world is changing for good, so strategies that worked in the past when fossil fuels stocks were deemed to be “defensive” investments may not work in the future and perhaps this is already recognised in the management panel’s continued challenge to your contracted fund managers.


Our proposal remains that in keeping with its duty to beneficiaries, members and the wider population, GMPF,

  • Immediately freezes any new investments in fossil fuel companies;

  • Divests from any company which is involved in the exploration or production of coal and unconventional oil or gas within two years, and from all fossil fuel companies within five years;

  • Works with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to develop and fund a low-carbon investment programme for Greater Manchester.

We would still appreciate a direct answer to our two questions on engagement:

Could you set out the specific goals of your engagement strategy?”


Could you say what the successes of your engagement strategy have been so far? Is it possible to quantify them in terms of saved emissions or investments in alternative energy?”

You might also consider a further question on engagement:

What criteria do you use to decide that engagement has not been successful and that exit from those stocks has become appropriate?”

Thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Smith, Tamara Williams Barnes, Mark Burton, Ali Abbas

for Fossil Free Greater Manchester

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Steady State Manchester and the People’s Plan for Greater Manchester

photo from an earlier SSM meeting

photo from an earlier SSM meeting

A meeting of SSM members was held on June 27th to consider the proposed process of developing the People’s Plan for Greater Manchester. David Fernández Arias gave an introduction to the rationale and purpose of the People’s Plan. In the face of the undemocratic DevoManc and the associated Combined Authority’s Strategy for Greater Manchester ( a group is planning to develop a People’s Plan, to present to candidates for the mayoral election. The key objectives of the People’s Plan and its development include:

  1. Input: Civil society and citizens are to be helped to have a meaningful say in the Devolution strategy
  2. (ii) Output: To be able to find constructive improvements of the greater Manchester Strategy that will benefit all.

The timetable outlined was as follows:

Now: crowdsourcing of resources

Involvement of individuals already from universities; voluntary and community social enterprises; campaigning groups; businesses; local councils

July-August ’16: Continue crowdsourcing.

Work up social media. Make people aware of what is going on.

Sept-October ’16: Primary input phase.

  1. Online – trade off to be made between something quick (e.g. Survey Monkey questions) and opportunities for greater contributions to be made. Process depends on available people with theory and practice experience.
  2. People’s Plan events across the 10 areas of Greater Manchester
  3. Themed events across Greater Manchester
  4. Feeder events – how existing civil society groups might include People’s Planning into their normal core activities and feed data into the planning process.
  5. Trade Unions and professional associations
  6. In-workplace opportunities for People’s Plan discussions.

November-December ’16: data processing and summarising.

Anticipated to be a mixture of Greater Manchester Strategy strategic themes and others to emerge.

January ’17: Communications

What can the People’s Plan deliver?

May ’17 Election of Mayor for Greater Manchester

Candidates to be presented with People’s Plan and asked to address it in their election campaigns.

Working Groups

  • So far there are working groups :
  • Question design for online survey
  • Data processing
  • People’s Plan events and organisational logistics
  • Connecting, networking, liaison re. feeder events

In the future working groups to be formed:

  • Fundraising
  • Others as required

Offers of help with working groups to David Fernández Arias via us: click to email us

Points raised by SSM on the process

  1. Overall support was given for the development of a People’s Plan and some offers of involvement were made: further information was needed before other SSM members could commit to active involvement in the process.
  2. It would be useful if there were greater transparency about who was involved already, representing what groups
  3. A statement of principles or values, giving an overall sense of direction for the People’s Plan would be useful form the start, framing a clear statement of invitation to groups and citizens to be involved.
  4. It would be useful to have explicit mention of culture (alongside social environmental, economic and democratic dimensions) to the plan. Culture is important both in terms of how the norms and ways we live are represented and how society is reproduced through this representation, and as a useful process of engagement for input to the People’s Plan.
  5. SSM could perhaps offer a critique of the Greater Manchester Strategy
  6. Governance: it would be useful to include a stage of endorsement of the Plan – either in its entirety or endorsement of parts of the Plan.
  7. SSM could probably mount some Feed sessions providing input into the Plan.
  8. More engaging forms of democracy could be an integral part of the plan – and the online resources available could be used for citizen engagement.
  9. It will be important that processes of involvement are engaging and varied, relevant to particular groups or areas in order to get a diversity of ideas.
  10. It was noted that Greater Manchester does not provide a meaningful source of identity for most citizens even if it does for politicians.
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Well-Being and the Viable Economy

A report on our café conversation on Well-Being and the Viable Economy: Monday 23 May.


We had vibrant (and noisy) discussions about well-being and the viable economy at the latest of our Steady State Manchester conversations. We used Ketso ( in order to help us think through the nature of well-being; what about the way we live now threatens well-being; and what policies might best enhance well-being. Of course there were lots of different views about what contributes to well-being, and during the workshop we were able to see what others thought and identify the great ideas as well as the policy priorities. Ketso uses the metaphor of a tree, from which branches (or themes) grow, sprouting leaves (ideas), and lets us form a picture of our ideas (rather like a mind map). With something as complex as well-being, the maps were full and detailed.

IMG-20160524-WA0000The aspects of well-being to emerge across all groups, with a summary of the issues connected to them were (* means these ideas were thought to be great ideas):

The Inner Person: sense if meaning and purpose*; inner peace and calm; happiness; joy; participation and engagement with the arts; able to talk about our emotions*; love; peace*; outlets for putting creative ideas into action; being able to have unscheduled time to just be*; creativity; musical/singing

Threats: lack of free time*; stress; worry about the state of society, the world and the environment; lack of opportunities or time for creativity; over-stimulation; unhappiness

Personal well-being: basic needs met; access to essentials; enough money*; solid financial security; means to live comfortably; comfortable home; ability and exercise; good health; a good, adequate and healthy diet; good spiritual and eco-health; job satisfaction; work that makes you happy*; access to the natural world; opportunities for following interests and achieving personal goals; opportunities for doing and appreciating art*; allowed to connect to your creativity; free time tio do as you please*.

Threats: poverty and inability to meet needs; good food not available; domestic violence; abuse; fear; fear of crime; poor air quality; traffic; information overload; mental ill health (individual or society?); lack of opportunity and time for pursuing personal interests; debt; lies*; media advertising.

Social well-being: family and friends; love; a happy home; good conversation; connectedness (with other people); good relationships; ability to connect and network; smiles; parties, festivals; social networks*; sharing.

Threats: no friends or family; social isolation; excessive bad news in the media.

Community well-being: resilient communities*; green living environments*; collaborative and cooperative neighbourhoods; spiritual organisations*.

Threats: struggling communities; lack of neighbourhood support or public services; shortage of kindness; current educational system*.

Collective well-being: availability of healthcare; safety; access to public services; access to healthy and enjoyable food; access to the arts; access to a variety of entertainment; disability support; medical health support available; job opportunities; a resilient local economy; housing support for vulnerable people or groups; a focus on equalities- acceptance for who you are*; cultural empowerment; social justice; civic freedoms; able to meet freely; education- free education for all; a healthy environment; access to nature and social spaces*; environmental infrastructure (parks)*.

Threats: increasingly having to pay for healthcare; structural inequality; lack of cultural awareness; cultural/social disempowerment; social tensions, racism, inequality; lack support for childcare; homelessness; cuts in public services; austerity; lack of quality jobs; unemployment; social norms (especially in post work, automated world); constant competition*; system that destroys connectedness and prizes profit; love of money; greed; skewed work ethic; shortage of time and necessity for paid work.

Societal well-being: access to the natural world; quiet green spaces; human connections to the cycles of nature; availability of time (leisure)*; security and safety*.

Threats: separation of people from nature; pollution; not being allowed to work with natural cycles; limited mindsets and resistance to change; an economy that does not have at its root people care, earth care and fair share.

Quite a lot here then! This is only one way of organising the thinking about well-being. In the workshop, the themes were given labels that included: cosmic; freedom from having to do; human connections; access to the natural world; opportunities for doing; basic needs; personal vibrancy; state of society; health; material wealth; community; meaning and purpose; jobs and the economy; housing and home; equalities; education; communities; actualisation; toxicity; environmental infrastructure; social; personal.IMG-20160524-WA0009

The policy priorities, following from the discussion of well-being, included:

  • New measures of success * beyond GDP (economists, politicians, SSM!)
  • Introduce a Universal Basic Income** (National or regional government, banks)
  • Introduce a working time directive for shorter working hours (UK and EU Governments, TUs, Civil society)
  • Sharing work (reduce maximum working hours) (Governments)
  • Automation of work (TUs)
  • Breaking monopolies (Law makers)
  • Reform local democracy and local decision making (Local Government)
  • Introduce community currencies (national and regional Governments)
  • Ensure building design enhances human connectedness* (Local Govt, Housing developers, architects)
  • Free education for all across the lifespan (Government)
  • Teach ethics (Education Minister)
  • Spiritual progress* (whose responsibility?)
  • Encouraging sharing (local Government,, communities, civil society)
  • More resilient food economy (supermarkets, advertisers, manufacturers)

These policy areas resonate with the position paper produced by SSM on The Viable Economy

SSM has also produced a report on how well-being is considered in other parts of the world – see report Living Well. This is worth a look if you are interested in both practical examples and other ways of thinking about living well. The philosophy of Buen Vivir (enshrined / co-opted[?] in both the Ecuador and Bolivia constitutions) are worth having a look at:

S. Deneulin (20120 Justice and deliberation about the good life: The contribution of Latin American buen vivir social movements to the ideas of justice. Bath Papers in International development and well-being, Working paper no. 17 Http://

M. Lanza (2012): Buen Vivir: An Introduction from a women’s rights perspective in Bolivia. Feminist Perspectives Towards Transforming Economic Power. Awid.

See also our webpage: Learning from Other Cultures for some further resources.

For the UK Government’s approach to measuring well-being, aiming to “produce accepted and trusted measures of the well-being of the nation – how the UK as a whole is doing. It is about looking at ‘GDP and beyond” see

For the UK ‘measurement’ of personal well-being, see

Carolyn Kagan

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Open letter on fossil fuel divestment to Chair of GM Pension Fund

FossilFree120Steady State Manchester is part of Fossil Free Greater Manchester (FFGM), a coalition of organisations and individuals campaigning for the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF) to take its money out of fossil fuels.  This is part of an international campaign for divestment, thereby building up pressure on governments and business to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – our diminishing chance of averting runaway climate change.

An Open Letter to Councillor Kieran Quinn, chair of GMPF, picks up on radio interviews on Tameside radio with him and one of FFGM’s members, Jenny Ross.  Councillor Quinn contests that GMPF lost £148M on the stocks of four coal mining companies alone, in the 18 months from April 2014.  He also argues that engagement with fossil fuel companies is a superior approach to divestment.  The open letter makes three requests with regard to these claims:

  1.  With regard to the claim on losses:

    “To allow us to check our calculations could you please provide the holdings data on fossil fuel companies that have coal assets for the last 18 months from April 2014 (and ideally to the end of March 2016). This will enable us to quantify the actual loss that occurred as a result of falling share values of your major fossil fuel stocks”

    And with regard to the strategy of engagement:

  2. “Could you set out the specific goals of your engagement strategy? We are somewhat sceptical, we must admit, because fossil fuel companies are just that, fossil fuel companies, with an interest in the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves rather than the promotion of alternative forms of energy. What is it you hope to achieve by engagement?
  3. “Could you say what the successes of your engagement strategy have been so far? Is it possible to quantify them in terms of saved emissions or investments in alternative energy? Or is success limited, as we suspect, to adoption of resolutions to improve risk management in relation to unburnable reserves and stranded assets?”

FFGM awaits his response with interest.

Here is the full letter:

Fossil Free Greater Manchester

c/o Manchester Friends of the Earth
Green Fish Resource Centre
46-50 Oldham Street
M4 1LE

Friday, 13 May, 2016

Councillor Kieran Quinn,
Chair, Greater Manchester Pension Fund,
Guardsman Tony Downes House
5 Manchester Road
M43 6SF

Dear Councillor Quinn,

Further to your comments in response to the Tameside Radio interview with one of our members (also covered in the Tameside Reporter), we would like to thank you for your engagement with the issues raised. In particular we were pleased to hear you acknowledge our effectiveness in raising public awareness of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

Given your recent comments we would like to ask for responses to the following questions:

  1. You disputed our suggestion that the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF) recently lost approximately £148 Million in the value of its coal stocks. This figure was based on the publicly available information on GMPF’s holdings, together with published data on share price movements. The calculations were done by the think tank Platform and only cover the losses in value of four coal mining companies in the last 18 months from April 2014 (Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Glencore and Rio Tinto). Considering the Fund may have assets in coal companies other than the four listed we speculate the losses may be even greater. Platform’s study (also covered by Damian Carrington in the Guardian of 12 October) is at this link: (See appendix.) However, we acknowledge that this analysis may have missed some changes in holdings (information on which is not available in real time). To allow us to check our calculations could you please provide the holdings data on fossil fuel companies that have coal assets for the last 18 months from April 2014 (and ideally to the end of March 2016). This will enable us to quantify the actual loss that occurred as a result of falling share values of your major fossil fuel stocks.

  1. In your interview you agreed with us on the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground as part of a major transformation in global energy systems to renewables. However, you disagreed with us that divestment is an effective way of pursuing that goal, instead arguing for engagement as a shareholder with fossil fuel companies. Could you set out the specific goals of your engagement strategy? We are somewhat sceptical, we must admit, because fossil fuel companies are just that, fossil fuel companies, with an interest in the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves rather than the promotion of alternative forms of energy. What is it you hope to achieve by engagement?

  1. In the light of the above, could you say what the successes of your engagement strategy have been so far? Is it possible to quantify them in terms of saved emissions or investments in alternative energy? Or is success limited, as we suspect, to adoption of resolutions to improve risk management in relation to unburnable reserves and stranded assets?

While we are critics of the amount of fossil fuel holdings the Fund has and of the failure to embrace a managed programme of divestment, we would like to recognise and commend the GMPF’s good practices. Specifically, the Fund’s decision to divest from the tobacco industry, the recent investment in offshore wind and the change to the Fund’s Statement of Investment Principles which now acknowledges the relevance of ethical factors in investment decisions. The threat that tobacco poses to public health is indisputable; scientists have determined that fossil fuels pose the same indisputable threat to public health and the global economy. We, and the 4000 people who have added their voice to our petition, believe that there is no ethical, financial or scientific reason to retain investments in the fossil fuel industry.

In light of this it is encouraging to see the Fund’s recent investments in renewables. Paired with a strategy of phased removal of investments from oil, gas and coal companies, this would provide the basis for a rebalanced investment approach in keeping with the threat of runaway climate change.

Globally, institutions worth $3.4 trillion had, by December last year, already committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment (see Therefore, if the GMPF decided to divest from fossil fuels, they would join a growing number of leading health, charitable and financial institutions.

We look forward to hearing your responses.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Ali Abbas and Dr Mark Burton

for Fossil Free Greater Manchester


Calculations (from Platform) of losses over 18 months from April 2014.

calculation on GMPF coal losses



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Universal Basic Income (or Citizen’s Income) – a digest of issues

Universal basic income (UBI) is an unconditional, income paid to every individual as a right of citizenship.

Steady State Manchester is increasingly interested in the relationship between work and income as the number of relatively secure, decently paid jobs reduces and precarious employment increases. We and others are interested in the potential of UBI. We are attracted by the possibility that UBI could amongst other things broaden the concept of work and provide everyone with a basic income , as part of a viable economy. We are making links with local academics, politicians and others and planning a seminar later this year to explore the possibilities of widening conversations about universal basic income and promoting a pilot in Greater Manchester. Please let us know if you would like to know more about this area of our work.

Steady State Manchester member, Carolyn Kagan has pulled together literature and information about UBI and provides an introduction to what UBI could achieve and some of the things to be thinking about.
Also available as a pdf file.

There is increasing interest in the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

The Citizen’s Income Trust campaigns for an unconditional, non-withdrawable income paid to every individual as a right of citizenship, and is a great source of information and discussion about universal basic income

There was a campaign in 2014 across the EU for the introduction of a BI via a European Citizen’s Initiative. The campaign did not reach the million signatures needed (it got 285,000), but is continuing to mobilise support to put pressure on both the European Commission and other EU authorities to act on implementing studies and pilot projects for an unconditional basic income in Europe.

In 2015 the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) proposed a model of a universal basic income, arguing that not only would this simplify the benefits system, it would also release latent creativity The RSA proposes a basic income experiment in a city or Region of the UK, which might chime with our Viable Economy vision.

There have been pilot programmes in India, and these have been fully documented with lots of lessons for implementation elsewhere

The Basic Income Earth Network showcases, through their newsletter, progress in other places, including actual or proposed schemes in Finland, Switzerland, Brazil, Iran, Alaska, Canada

The Cherokee Tribe has introduced a basic income for members, funded from the proceeds of a casino In Europe some Dutch cities are proposing to introduce a pilot UBI to small numbers of benefit recipients (thus not following the principle of universality of the BI), but removing the conditionality pervading our own welfare system, so a start.

The Green Party has adopted UBI as policy and John McDonnell is considering it.

Greek former finance minister and noted economist, Yannis Varoufakis , considers UBI a vital move towards social democracy.

There is even an academic journal devoted to Basic Income Studies

BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network) says:

Common to all (UBI supporters) is the belief that some sort of economic right based upon citizenship – rather than upon one’s relationship to the production process or one’s family status – is called for as part of the just solution to social problems in advanced societies. Basic Income, conceived as a universal and unconditional, if modest, continuous stream of income granted throughout life to all members of a political community is just the simplest and most striking element in an expanding set of social policy proposals inspired by this belief and currently debated, if not already implemented.

What reasons are there for supporting a UBI as a move towards a Viable Economy?

Clearly the current system of welfare support and employment is not working. It is part of the unviable economy.

Jobs giving paid work are shrinking and becoming ever more automated, reducing available jobs even more.

Yet it is paid work that has a high social value. This means that those not in work, either through unemployment, caring or sickness are devalued, even stigmatised.

Those is paid work are often working long hours with high levels of stress, leaving less time for family, friends and for community activities.

There has been in increase in precarious work – with people taking several causal, uncertain, low paid jobs and with little social security as they move between different periods of work. .

Income inequality and poverty is increasing and in 2016 more than a million people are living in destitution in the UK.

What would moving to a Universal Basic Income achieve?

Malcolm Torry (2015) gives 101 reasons for supporting UBI, covering the economy, a changing society, politics, administration and ideas. Here are just some of the central reasons it would give a basic level of financial security for those not in, or unable to find, paid employment, enabling everyone to have a satisfactory level of income.

  • It would be paid to everyone, all citizens. Therefore there would no longer be a distinction between those receiving financial support and those not: a reduced stigmatisation of people in financial insecurity and increased recognition for activities other than (well) paid employment.

  • It would mean that people in menial, tedious and unsatisfying jobs would not need to work in them for such long hours – people would have a higher degree of autonomy in their lives than they do at the moment. UBI could even kill of low paid menial jobs.

  • Provided that the basic income is genuinely adequate, nobody is exploited, however low the pay. For the job is freely chosen in preference to an acceptable alternative of not having a job1.

  • It might mean that people could choose to work fewer hours in paid employment altogether, creating room for more time to be spent with family, on hobbies and pleasurable activities or in community activities. It would enable non-market activities to flourish that, while not materially productive, nonetheless make life meaningful and have important functions for the wellbeing of people and communities.

  • The work that people do at the moment that is not paid, and is predominantly carried out by women (caring, bringing up children, community activism) would be recognised more and be more socially valued. There would be a paradigm shift in what (paid) work means.

  • Those jobs that are unpleasant and that nobody wants to do would become higher paid.

  • Means tested benefits and complicated eligibility assessments for welfare payments would be abolished.

  • The security offered by UBI would facilitate creativity and flexibility.

Are there any challenges to the introduction of UBI?


We do not know how UBI would work out in the advanced capitalist societies. It is possible that UBI would serve to maintain current levels of consumption – even increase them. Would the provision of UBI actually prevent progress being made on the argument for a decrease in consumption and the increased durability of goods?

Use of Time

We do not know what people in advanced capitalist societies would do with an increase in non-paid work time. We know at the moment that there are gender differences in leisure activities, with men spending more time on sport and TV and women on household tasks. National surveys indicate a lot of free time is spent in the home, watching television, listening to the radio. In 2010 the average amount of time spent watching television was 4 hr 2 min per day; and listening to the radio 2 hr 53 mins.

Would people be more creative, more sociable and active in their communities with a UBI? – we do not know. There is some suggestion that at the moment a small group of relatively highly educated people from more prosperous areas constitute the core of active citizenship (charitable giving, community participation, volunteer hours). 62.pdf

If this is the case, then it is likely that considerable support would be needed for people to use non-work time positively in the service of conviviality and more resilient, participative, sustainable and flourishing communities, and in the development of craft and useful skills. However, we do know that given the opportunity we all learn together and from each other, so this bodes well for the continued development of socially useful skills and knowledge.


We do not know how long it will take for social values to change, away from the prime value of paid employment towards valuing other activities. There is some suggestion that it is necessary for values to change before UBI can be successfully mplemented. . A good first step towards this might be for those in well paid, full time (and long hour) jobs should reduce their hours voluntarily and publicly, in order to undertake caring or community activities. The idea is that this would begin to shift social norms and values away form paid employment towards these other activities.

At the moment paid work gives people a strong sense of personal and social identity. Obviously this is problematic for those out of paid employment and threats to identity underpin a lot of the lack of sense of purpose and ill health accompanying unemployment. . From paid work, employees can get a sense of esteem and self worth, as well as of achievement. Work gives them social recognition. If people are to work less, then attention will need to be paid to other sources of esteem, achievement and recognition. And this will require a shift is social values.

We do not know how long it will take for social norms to change and the way people think about themselves in relation to others.

Sharing the caring

We do not know if UBI would share care out more fairly between women and men. At the moment women undertake most unpaid and paid caring. It is possible that there would be an increase in men’s caring within the household with a reduction of paid work time, but we do not know. Experience from the Scandinavian countries with good take up of paternity leave, is that participating in caring continues after the leave. However, in the UK we have a problem. At the moment few men take or are expected to take up paternity leave, even though the provision is there. Only 2%-8% are expected to take it up.

We should not expect UBI to change the balance of caring, but it should raise the esteem and reduce the stigma of caring, and perhaps lead to more highly paid jobs.


UBI has implications for the kinds and amounts of paid work people do. The current emphasis on education is schools as preparation for paid work and jobs would need to change, in favour of education for varied and fulfilling roles. Away from the current emphasis on ‘ensuring a workforce able to compete in a global market’ to one where people ‘play full roles in developing sustainable local economies’.

It will need to take place in community spaces beyond the school room, and emphasise relationship building and maintenance skills and cooperation. Education and learning beyond school will need to enable sharing of knowledge and skills through underpinning mutuality, shared ownership, collaboration, humility, creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination. For some of the challenges and possibilities, see

Disability, additional care and housing.

Some approaches to UBI suggest that there would need to be additional supplements to take account of the needs and additional costs associated with supporting disabled people as well as those who need higher levels of care. Similar challenges for implementation of UBI arise in relation to housing, the crisis in which UBI is unlikely to solve

It could be that separate systems of housing, ability or care costs would be needed. Alternatively, the level of the UBI could be set at a rate high enough to meet the needs of every household. Even those who advocate a high level of UBI recognise the need for some supplementary system. And then would we be moving back to the current system of complexity and stigma?


One of the advantages hailed for UBI is the promise of shorter working hours and greater flexibility and autonomy for workers. We do not know how workplaces will adapt. Currently, although there is a right to request flexible working in the UK at the moment, employers can offer a business case in support of refusing requests. Depending on the eligibility criteria for UBI, there may well be a reserve of labour ineligible for UBI who might be willing and available to continue to work in low paid, long hours and menial jobs, thereby weakening the case for changes in the workplace. We do not know.

Is there support for the idea of UBI?

There have been some attempts to examine what the general public think of the idea of UBI. Sheffield Equality Group undertook some research showing people were generally in favour of the idea, but were concerned about who would be eligible to receive it. 95% respondents said they would take a job with good working conditions in addition to receiving the UBI and nearly half said they would take an additional job with poor working conditions. Nearly half thought other people might not take on additional work.

Another study compared the attitudes of people in Finland with those in Sweden towards UBI. Generally the Finns were more in favour and this was attributed in part to differences in the social conditions in which they lived, with unemployment being higher in Finland. . Younger people were more in favour than older people. Attitudes that support UBI in Germany are linked to the kinds of beliefs people hold towards social justice, social solidarity and acceptance of current systems of welfare combined with stigmatising (or not) attitudes towards welfare recipients. Similarly, in a study looking at public attitudes towards UBI in Switzerland,, again, it was found that pre-existing values in favour of social justice or individualism determined support or antagonism for UBI. In Switzerland, though, popular support for UBI has precipitated a referendum in June 2016, despite opposition by both houses of parliament.

What level of UBI should there be?

Opinions differ on this. The Green Party suggest £80 pw (£4,160 p.a.) for adults between 18 and retirement age). Other suggestions are that it should be the dole plus housing benefit (approximately £8,000). Or it could be the basic tax allowance (£11,000).

Opinions differ, too as to whether it should be enough to provide an income – for example there are suggestions that the UK could afford approximately £20,000 in UBI. . Alternative views suggest UBI should be just enough to prevent hunger, ill health and destitution. The differences in opinion largely revolve around whether UBI should be seen as a right or a choose to engage in paid work or not; or whether it is should be seen as a social protection against poverty.

There have been lots of attempts to clarify where the money might come from to pay for UBI, linked closely to the identification of the level to be set. The RSA and the Citizens Income Trust have both discussed this in depth and Equally there are debates about what kind of reciprocity should be required – is it enough to qualify as a citizen (and all the complexities behind this simple statement), or should some kind of community payback be expected? More work on people’s views about this would be needed in order to refine any proposals.

Who will be eligible for UBI?

Everyone over the age of 18? Some proposals have a rate for children too. A basic principle of UBI is that it is not means tested. Clearly debates about eligibility are linked to definitions of citizenship, and are linked to the issue of reciprocity above.

Why give to those who don’t need it?

Universal state support already exists. Even people in well paid jobs get an allowance from the state at the moment in terms of their Personal Tax allowance. UBI would probably encompass this. Equally, the state retirement pension and child benefit is paid to everyone, regardless of assets, giving a precedent for universal income protection. Other forms of universality at the moment include education (no conditions attached, that some do not take it up and prefer to pay for an alternative education does not undermine the basic principle) and to a lesser extent the National Health Service.

Will People work Less?

Most approaches to UBI assume that people would continue to undertake paid work to top up their income, although the extent to which they do this is probably linked to the level of UBI set. However, they would not be forced to work, and they could choose to reduce their hours in low paid and unpleasant jobs (or indeed, any jobs). Pilot programmes have shown that people do continue to work. In A pilot in India, levels of paid work went up In a pilot in Canada, the only people to reduce their paid working hours were young mothers, teenagers still in education and those due to retire soon .

A recent poll of people in Switzerland showed that only a tiny minority said they would stop working if UBI were to be introduced .

What it would mean though is that the time spent on paid employment and on other activities would change, enabling a better work-life balance. This is no bad thing with shrinking employment: UBI may lead to a sharing of paid work more equitably.

Some interesting bits of history

Apparently Thomas More raised the idea in his 1516 work, Utopia. The English revolutionary Thomas Paine proposed something similar to UBI in 1797. And the German psychoanalyst and Frankfurt School theorist Erich Fromm advocated ‘a universal subsistence guarantee’ in his famous 1955 book The Sane Society. In 1966, he considered the issue in more depth in an essay entitled The Psychological Aspects of the Guaranteed Income .

In Britain the first costed proposal was put forward by Juliet Rhys Williams in 1942, as an alternative to the Beveridge Plan, which she said would damage work incentives and lead eventually to direction of labour . In 1972 it re-emerged under the Heath government as Tax Credits. And during the 1970s it was the subject of two investigations (this time as Social Dividend) by Nobel prize-winning economist James Meade. Since then it has been considerably refined. In 1982 the then Liberal Party submitted recommendations for a Tax-Credit system with individual assessment units, and the late Sir Brandon Rhys Williams MP (son of Juliet Rhys Williams) submitted proposals for a modified Basic Income or Basic Income Guarantee to a Sub Committee of the House of Commons Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. In 1981 the Basic Income Research Group (BIRG) was formed under the auspices of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, to research all aspects of reform along Basic Income lines, and in 1986, at the first ever international conference on Basic Income, delegates from fourteen European countries set up a Basic Income European Network – now known as the Basic Income Earth Network – BIEN.


So there is a lot to think about! Before we can even think of putting UBI into place, I think a lot of work needs to be done in relation to how acceptable UBI would be. The very concept challenges several social norms and any successful introduction of UBO would depend on these norms changing. The kinds of norms I have in mind include: paid employment should be the main source of income for people of working age; paid employment (although it would have to be paid) is the means whereby we are able to structure time, make social contacts, gain a sense of collective purpose, gain a sense of social identity or status, have regular activity; caring and community activities are less important than paid employment; people should not be given state handouts for nothing but should earn them; we should allocate state benefits to those most in need – and there may well be many more. Support for UBI and debates about the practicalities amongst policy makers, think tanks and social commentators is growing. I haven’t come across much that sets UBI discussions alongside alternatives that might achieve some of the same viable economy goals. Could, for instance, a straightforward , widespread reduction in working hours deal with the restructuring of time in favour of more creative and convivial activities? Could a guaranteed job for all deal with the stigmatisation of those currently out of paid employment and ensure all achieve a level of social status. As well as ensure everyone has an acceptable level of income? Could paying caring and menial jobs a lot more deal with the lack of social value placed on this work at present? Or should some of these alternatives be considered alongside UBI? Even more to think about and widely discuss!

Carolyn Kagan

1 Barry, B. (1997), ‘The Attractions of Basic Income’, in J. Franklin (ed), Equality, London: Institute for Public Policy Research, pp 157-71.

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Building a picture of well-being in a viable economy




Our next cafe conversation will be on Monday 23rd May, at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester M2 1NL.  


Book now


When it comes to happiness, social progress or well-being indexes, we are not in the top half dozen countries. However we are in the top half dozen richest countries in the world and continue growing the economy. Could we do better in a viable economy?

What can we learn from the majority world? For example, in many parts of Africa, Ubuntu underpins thinking, an underlying collective philosophy that  ‘I am because we are’. What can we learn from Latin American Buen Vivir, a culture of life which strives for solidarity and harmony between humans and nature.

Resources on our website make excellent background reading and watching including this recent short paper by Kothari, Demaria and Acosta on buen vivir, ubuntu and ecological swaraj:

See you there! Book now!

April’s cafe conversation voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and to campaign for the lesser of two ills

Are you finding it hard to get excited by the EU Referendum? You are not alone.

The campaign lacks many features that made the Scottish Referendum exciting and involved so many people (turnout 87%). In the EU Referendum there is little vision and hope on either side. With big imperfections within the EU and going it alone, it would be nice to think the impact might be irrelevant.  But can we ignore growing nationalism here and elsewhere and threats to the environmental and human rights which do get some attention from the EU?  Is it important to get out and argue for the lesser of two ills?

Nearly everyone at our cafe conversation on 19th April will vote to remain in. However, reasons given to stay included:

  • The EU is better for social justice, climate change, environment; it does more to regulate big business and hence helps to protect the population and the planet
  • Supranational challenges such as climate change require the EU
  • The economy is more likely to grow if we are in the EU (and we see this as a problem on a finite planet but that does not mean that exit would lead to a viable economy
  • We discussed how we can influence and encourage discussion and thought.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           We could:
  • Talk to people wherever we can e.g. letters to the Press, events, 1:1, social media.
  • Focus on understanding issues that concern people. Ask them what their vision is and examine specifics
  • Share how you see the positive impact of EU membership e.g. on labour laws and the environment
  • Use good practice examples from Europe to solve the UK’s problems e.g. housing, planning, transport, energy
  • Pick up on the terms of the debate to offer a critique e.g. GDP, growth, productivity, competition
  • Keep contextualising the issues e.g. migration – fundamental causes (oil, war, climate, arms trade) See the Viable Economy pps 28-30
  • Stress that remaining in may be more protective long term

Useful resources

We shared helpful resources; can you add anything to the list?

UNITE briefing on labour laws:—23-june-2016/

RSPB briefing/ questions on environment 0

Friends of the Earth EU Referendum page:

Another Europe is Possible:

Democracy in Europe (Diem25):

Environmentalists for Europe:

Environmentalists for Europe:

This detailed and helpful briefing was made in response to comments in a (very large) Facebook group in Wales.

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What’s most important for Greater Manchester


We went to Chorlton and Whalley Range Green Festival on Saturday and ran an activity to help people engage with us.  We took some of the ideas that underpin “official” thinking on devolution and economic development in the city region and added in some alternative ideas that underpin our own thinking.  People had 5 votes which they could distribute among them.  Here are the results of this small and unscientific survey.

Social solidaritybeing together, caring for and supporting each other and working collectively for good.


Equalities & Social justicebuilding a fairer society with much smaller differences in wealth, income and well-being.


Economic Growthmaking the economy bigger


Infrastructureinvestment in roads, railways (e.g. HS2 and 3), airports, telecoms.


Jobsmore and better jobs


Welfare reformspending less on benefits and helping people into work.


Resiliencemaking our economy and society better equipped to withstand shocks from climate change, economic turbulence and geopolitical events such as wars.


Carbon reductionrapidly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to zero to try & prevent climate change getting much worse.


Competitionpositioning Greater Manchester to compete for trade and investment in a global economy.


Sustainable financereducing debt while ensuring that our money funds things that society and the environment really need and avoiding bubbles, boom and bust.


Democratic accountabilityensuring our leaders reflect our interests and views and account for what they are doing through a variety of channels including public meetings.


Locally sourced foodmore of it produced and processed locally by people, co-ops, SME’s.


Scientific or not, the results are of some interest since they indicate that for this audience (not all of whom were stereotypical environmentalists) at least, a society that protects its environment while increasing levels of social solidarity and economic and social resilience matter more than the conventional notions of economic growth and jockeying for position in an international competition.

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New evidence on decoupling carbon emissions from GDP growth: what does it mean?

New evidence suggests absolute decoupling in some economies, but is it enough and will it last?

PDF version


Does economic growth inevitably lead to more emissions of pollutants, and specifically of greenhouse gases? In previous posts I’ve shown that to date, claims that economic (GDP) growth is decoupling from greenhouse gas emissions (measured in CO2ei) do not stand up. The claims either failed to cite sources, were only based on energy-related or on territorial (rather than consumption) emissionsii, or only demonstrated relative decoupling (reduction of rate of emissions growth) rather than absolute decoupling (an actual reduction in emissions while the economy increased in size).

New evidence

Now, however, new research has been published that does seem to provide evidence for absolute decoupling, in some national economies, even when outsourced emissions are included (i.e. using consumption or total emissions rather than territorial emissions).

In this post, I will review the strength of that evidence, and consider what it means in relation to a) the thesis that emissions can be decoupled from economic growth, b) that this will be sufficient to the climate change challenge facing humanity.

The evidence

The most recent research has already been covered widely in the press. The New York Times for example carried an article with the headline, Signs Are Promising That Economies Can Rise as Carbon Emissions Decline. This article by Coral Davenport gives a helpful resumé of the work done by Nathaniel Aden at the World Resources Institute (also covered in a Guardian article by Fred Pearce that is worth a read). This study examined the relationships between GDP and CO2 emissions for each country. It found that in 21 countries, territorial emissions have decoupled from GDP growth, looking at the period 2000 to 2014. My first reaction was that this yet again concerned territorial emissions, so I looked at the corresponding consumption emissions. In fact, Sophie Yeo and Simon Evans of the UK-based Carbon Brief did the same thing. First they extended the data set to include all countries, not just the 65 in the BP database used by Aden in the WRI study. They used the Global Carbon Project data. This yielded a total of 35 countries where territorial emissions reduced while GDP grew. Then they looked at the consumption emissions. It is worth quoting their finding on this latter critical point:

Only 21 countries decoupled their economic growth from consumption-based CO2 emissions, between 2000 and 2013. This suggests some countries were only able to decouple by “offshoring” some of their emissions to other countries.

However, major economies including the UK, US, France and Germany still decoupled, even after accounting for the CO2 contained in imported goods.

I have used the same data to produce the following graphs that show the relationship between the territorial and consumption emissions for the 28 countries in the original group of 35 for which there is consumption emissions data available, plus Estonia.

First these 29 countries:

29 decoupling countries complete terr vs cons

The outlier is Côte d’Ivoire. I don’t know exactly what’s been going on there, but while it reduced its territorial emissions by 1.4%, its consumption emissions have increased by a staggering 106%. Whatever the reasons for this, the other country data is easier to see if we take Côte d’Ivoire out of the picture:

28 decoupling countries terr vs cons
Singapore, Ireland, Bulgaria, Portugal, Sweden, Netherlands, Cyprus and Japan (8 countries) actually, and to varying degrees, made bigger cuts to their consumption emissions than their territorial emissions. In addition Estonia reduced consumption emissions while increasing territorial emissions. However, all the other countries did less well on consumption emissions than on territorial emissions. In addition to Côte d’Ivoire, Ukraine, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Poland, Canada, Jamaica, Switzerland, and Croatia (9 countries) all failed to decouple consumption emissions,. The others, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, UK, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, USA, France, Finland, Germany and Austria (12 countries) all showed evidence of decoupling consumption emissions but less than they decoupled territorial emissions. Carbon Brief, then, are correct to say that a group of 21countries show evidence, on these data, of decoupling their consumption-based emissions from GDP growth.

Here is a table summarising all this.


Change in CO2 (Territorial), %

Change in CO2 (Consumption) %

Change in real GDP, %

Territorial reduction less than consumption reduction?











Slovak Republic






























Czech Republic













































Cote d’Ivoire


































































Questions about emissions data.

These findings surprised me. But what do they really tell us? Firstly I’ll look at some questions about the data. This is not to criticise the work of either WRI or Carbon Brief, but to note a number of uncertainties about the data that they used and which I have also gone through, replicating their analysis.

Accuracy of country-level data and missing emissions

The data analysed is taken from two sources: The BP Statistical Review of World Energy and the Global Carbon Budget Project, part of the US Department of Energy’s “Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center”. The latter source takes its information on territorial emissions from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose sources are based on the individual country submissions. Where these are not available, BP data is used. Consumption emissions are taken from the Global Carbon Budget Project which relies heavily on research by Glen Peters of the University of Oslo, working with a number of colleagues in various countries: the data from the Peters et al. 2011 article is used, updated, but we don’t know exactly how. Without going into great detail, there are a number of issues with these various sources of data.

  1. Variability in the quality of data reported by countries. China’s emissions data has been questioned before but the same concerns about inaccuracy are likely to apply to the data from some other countries.

  2. The use of different reporting protocols by different countries. This is a historical legacy of Kyoto – some countries are newcomers to emissions reporting.

  3. Emissions from international transport (i.e. shipping and aviation) are reported by individual countries but not included in their totals: they are included in the global total of emissions. This is an important matter since when considering those emissions that arise from consumption of imported goods and services, these emissions are obviously a relevant component.

  4. There may well be other missing data, for example the scale of “fugitive” emissions from the petrochemical industry could be larger than estimated as demonstrated in recent work on methane escapes from shale gas (fracking) in the USA, or the increasing emissions from submarine hydrides and melting permafrost which might, or more likely might not, feature in country territorial emissions figures.

  5. The methodology for arriving at consumption emissions is even more complex.
    Although all emissions inventories have some uncertainty, including territorial emissions, consumption-based estimates will have larger uncertainty due to the incorporation of more input data, each with various levels of uncertainty.” (Barrett at al., 2016, p. 457).
    Two methods are used by the Peters group, but the most accurate one, the Multi-Regional Input–Output (MRIO) model was only possible for three years (1997, 2001, and 2004) due to data limitations. The simpler Embodied Emissions in Bilateral Trade (EEBT) model is used in the majority of years, or rather a variant of this is used: To avoid the time-lags and construction of an annual global database,
    “we develop a method to approximate the EEBT method with the components of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”
    Perhaps unsurprisingly, other researchers have reached rather different conclusions about the impacts of outsourced emissions: in a 2014 study, Kanemoto et al., using a different MRIO database, found that “adjusting for trade, developed countries emissions have increased, not decreased” and that “the sectors successfully holding or lowering their domestic emissions are the often the same as those increasing their imports of embodied CO2. This suggests that it is not cleaner production or consumption patterns that are reducing domestic emissions, but simply burden-shifting of the same emissions-intensive activities”.
    The Kanemoto Sydney model finds greater levels of consumption emissions than the Peters Oslo model while a further model from the University of Leeds finds still higher levels although in general they all move in the same direction showing the same general trends.
    A further problem is with the number of assumptions made in using these models, such as the use of monetary values as proxies for material flows, and the reduction of diversity in various exports to country-wide averages. For a full review of the complexities of calculating consumption emissions see Sato (2013), who concludes that although attempts at measurement are worthwhile and revealing of the nature of the problem, “quantities of [emissions embodied in trade] at the country level remain highly uncertain for most countries and years”. And it is worth noting that the uncertainties about territorial emissions apply also to estimates of consumption emissions since the methodologies for calculating them use exporting and importing countries territorial data as input to their calculation.

Questions about GDP data

GDP is also a complex, composite index (see World Bank definition), with many assumptions in its calculation. Leaving aside whether it measures something meaningful, there are methodological problems here too and these apply to its calculation for every single country.

Firstly, it is necessary to have accurate information on the sectors of each country’s economy, and countries differ widely in the areas that are hidden from the official statistics (the informal economy, the criminal economy and transactions hidden from the official gaze legally or illegally for tax avoidance/evasion), in the level of expenditure on public services (which to only varying degrees can be equated to economic activity such as production) and financial services (of which more later), and in the quality of data collected. Secondly, that data needs to be aggregated – and a variety of assumptions are made in doing this, as well as the use of estimates for missing data. See this and this piece for discussion of some of these issues. Finally, it has to be reported, and governments may have incentives for varying degrees of presentational inaccuracy.

It should be noted that, as seen above, GDP figures are themselves used in arriving at the estimates of consumption emissions, which again involves some assumptions about costs and prices.

So, the question of understanding the relationship between the growth of the economy and emissions rests on data sets that have, at best, considerable margins of error. The analyses by WRI and Carbon Brief do not cite “confidence limits”, or similar estimates of error, for either the variables or for the dependability of the relationships they identify – and indeed that would be a difficult task, given the heterogeneity of the “data behind the data”. However, the Barrett et al. article, reviewed recently by Carbon Brief does exactly this for the UK data, although only up to 2004: these estimates though are themselves based on the known variation within the data rather than the “known and unknown unknowns” that beset such ambitious enterprises. There is a tendency, particularly in the secondary literature, to give the impression that these data are the “real thing” rather than socially mediated estimates.

Issues of interpretation

We turn now to problems of interpreting the relationships between GDP growth and emissions reduction that have been reported. Let’s make the charitable assumption, for the moment, that the datasets are perfectly reliableiii. What could account for the changes?

1 Energy mix

It may be that the way energy is produced has become less carbon-intensive. That is to say, for each joule of energy produced, fewer molecules of greenhouse gases are produced. And for economies decarbonising both territorial emissions and consumption emissions, this would be happening at home and in enough of the economies producing goods and services that are imported.

We know that this has been happening. Globally, energy emissions have recently stalled, although not reduced (except in 2009 and in the early 1980s) and this is attributed to a reduction in the use of coal (the most carbon-polluting hydrocarbon source, used for electricity generation and in our declining steel industry) and to the growth of renewables. In the case of the UK, a similar but stronger picture can be seen with falls in territorial emissions in 2015 to 38% below the 1990 level (figures from Carbon Brief). For the first time, renewable energy generation surpassed coal (although this includes biomass, much of it using imported wood, substituting for coal, with the shipping emissions excluded from analysis). Changes in energy use internationally will also feed into the consumption data, for example, the two biggest sources of UK imports are the European Union and China, both of which have been ramping up renewables investment.

2 Composition of GDP growth

As we noted above, GDP is a composite of economic activities. It is perhaps no surprise that the big reductions in total emissions are seen after the Great Financial Crash of 2008 A number of things have been happening in the economies concerned since then. For illustration I will focus on the UK economy.

Between 2007 and 2011, households began repaying their debts:, UK net household saving went from more than MINUS £30Bn to PLUS £20Bn. That is to say there was a shift from consumption fuelled by credit to holding money in savings and investment accounts. This was in the context of static or reducing incomes: it is therefore not surprising if consumption decreased. However, from 2011 the pattern reversed with savings reducing and credit card debt increasing. Yet by 2013 (the last year of data in the consumption emissions analysis), household expenditure had only just recovered to its 2007 (pre-Crash) level in real terms according to ONS data and real wages are still below 2008 levels.

Since 2010, austerity has hit household spending in the UK hard so whatever the GDP figures are telling us, swathes of the population have less to spend on goods and services. While the GDP figures have risen, much of that has been dependent on “asset price inflation” (principally house prices in London and the South East). There are several aspects to this, including the siphoning away of housing proceeds to non-UK economies (due to speculative purchases by non-residents) and a rising proportion of UK citizen expenditure on rent rather than on consumption. These factors together mean that there is not a one-to-one relationship between economic growth and consumption: available statistics do not make it easy to unravel these relationships but we should be cautious in assuming that GDP rises necessarily equate to consumption increases. That means that a simple relationship between GDP growth and indices of GHG emissions will not apply under all circumstances. We need more sophisticated tools for understanding these relationships.

But what about the other economies? Several of the decoupling nations are European Union countries, and austerity policies there are likely to have had similar downward effects on consumption levels. This led me to look again at the most impressive decoupling countries. Household consumption as a percentage of GDP declined in the 2000-2015 period in 6 of the 8 countries whose consumption emissions reductions exceeded their territorial ones. Using World Bank Data on Final Household Consumptioniv, the percentage change for these countries from 2000 to 2014 was as follows.


 -9.95% (decrease)


-5.87% (decrease)


-4.82% (decrease)




-1.27% (decrease)


-10.63% (decrease)




-10.55% (decrease)

In a majority of these cases, then, a reduction in consumption by households will have contributed to the overall national decoupling.v It does not account for all the difference but there will be other associated reductions in consumption-related activity, elsewhere in the economy, not reflected in the figures for households (an inverse multiplier).

A further factor is the financialisation of the economy. In the UK and the US, as well as in many other “developed” economies, the share of GDP accounted for by non-productive financial growth (interest, speculative asset growth) rose over the period in question. Owners of this new capital have sought to make further profit, not from productive sections of the economy but from further financial “rent-seeking”. While credit growth has fuelled consumption, by allowing household expenditure in the face of static or falling real incomes, the ballooning profits appear to be much larger than this domestic “feedstock”. So financial growth, as a significant proportion of GDP growth, is not all directed at increased consumption. The same goes for Quantitative Easing which has been criticised for not aiding the productive economy but instead adding to asset bubbles.

There is not the space for further analysis here, the point however is that GDP rises do not necessarily translate into consumption rises in the short term.

3 Population changes

The “real GDP” figures used by Carbon Brief control for prices but not for population changes. Some of the decoupling economies have had high levels of emigration. Remittances in these cases will, on the one hand, have inflated the GDP figures for these countries but there are also fewer people consuming in the home country. Now a converse argument could be made for countries like the UK and US (whose populations have grown as a result of migration): the point is that again, these processes need to be unraveled before we can say with any confidence that we have a relationship.

4 How durable are these changes likely to be?

Since it is not clear what is underlying the apparent decarbonisation in selected economies, it is unclear how durable these changes may be. It may be that a set of short-run factors are combining, post Great Financial Crash. Some of these, such as the switch from coal, are positive and in themselves unidirectional, but others (particularly the phenomenon of “ungrounded growth” explored above) are potentially reversible. Even changes in energy usage patterns could, over time, be wiped out by rebound elsewhere in the economy, or by under-estimation of factors such as methane leakage, biofuel carbon emissions or from loss of sequestration and methane emissions following megadam projects.


We have two main areas of uncertainty and three areas of certainty:

1) We cannot be sure what the findings of decoupling in selected economies really mean because of problems of data quality, missing data and the “construct validity” of measures – i.e. are they actually measuring what they purport to? When we then look for relationships between the variables, the uncertainties increase. Moreover, they do not demonstrate a causal relationship: the relationship could in many cases be a result in the dissociation of consumption growth itself from overall GDP growth. At best there is only an association: practically you can’t point to say the Estonian or UK economy and say “do this”, although some of the things that have been done will indeed be helpful.

2) There is also uncertainty about the durability of the observed effects because they may reflect one-off or reversible changes, or they may under-estimate emissions.

3) Only some economies show these apparent effects. Even if these findings reflect a solid relationship between the growth of some economies and emissions reductions attributable to them, they would be just that, an effect in only some economies. Meanwhile, global emissions in the period 2000 to 2014 increased by 45%. (By definition territorial emissions equate to consumption emissions globally). So the global economy, is far from decoupling its emissions from its expansion.

4) The rates of emissions reduction in the apparently decoupling nations would be nowhere near sufficient to avert the climate catastrophe. As Anderson and Bows have shown, the Annex 1 nations (that includes most of the apparently decoupling countries) need to be reducing emisions at between 8 to 10% p.a. The figures in the above table do not give annual rates above 2%. As Anderson and Bows note, From Stern and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change through to virtually every 2°C emission scenario developed by ‘Integrated Assessment Modellers’, reductions in absolute emissions greater than 3% to 4% year on year are judged incompatible with a growing economy.”
This would seem to put degrowth firmly back on the agenda since to achieve radical emissions reduction, we need a global economy that is considerably smaller, in material terms, and the only socially justifiable course becomes “living better with less”.

5) And while measurement of emissions may have its flaws, we know that global CO2 concentrations continue their ever upward path, and that is a path that, if anything, appears to be accelerating.

Mark H Burton

April, 2016

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iCO2e means CO2 equivalent. Other greenhouse gases (including Methane and the Nitrogen Oxides) have a greater insulating effect than Carbon Dioxide but are emitted in smaller quantities. CO2e provides a convenient single indicator that converts the greenhouse effect of these other gases to the amount of CO2 that would produce the same impact and then adds that to the CO2 figure.

iiTerritorial emissions are those emitted within the borders of a country. Consumption emissions are those attributable to all the services and products consumed by a country. As will be seen, territorial emissions are the easiest to measure and are the basis from which consumption emissions are calculated. Rich country economies have typically “outsourced a lot of their production of goods and services that are produced in other countries: therefore territorial emissions do not give a representative picture of the planetary impact of these economies, nor conversely of the economies where this production takes place. The UK has done this to a greater extent than other countries.

iiiReliable but not necessarily valid.

ivHousehold final consumption expenditure (formerly private consumption) is the market value of all goods and services, including durable products (such as cars, washing machines, and home computers), purchased by households. It excludes purchases of dwellings but includes imputed rent for owner-occupied dwellings. It also includes payments and fees to governments to obtain permits and licenses. Here, household consumption expenditure includes the expenditures of nonprofit institutions serving households, even when reported separately by the country. This item also includes any statistical discrepancy in the use of resources relative to the supply of resources.”

vFor the countries that decoupled consumption emissions, but at a lower rate than their territorial emissions, the picture is similar (decreases, or very small increases in household consumption) with the exception of the outlier Cyprus:
Romania -8.17% (decrease)

Hungary -7.27% (decrease)

Czech Republic -4.49% (decrease)

United Kingdom 0.16%

Denmark 3.21%

Spain -2.37% (decrease)

Belgium -1.95% (decrease)

USA 3.76%

France 1.93%

Finland 1.93% (2000-2008)

Germany -4.44% (decrease)

Austria 0.01%

Cyprus 13.28%

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