The decoupling debate, one year on: the global picture, and Manchester.

update:  an updated and longer version of this piece now appears at
and was also syndicated by and This Changes Everything

Note: we have published other, including more recent, pieces on the myth of decoupling, including commentary on more recent claims. Click HERE for a full list.

A year ago, in one of our most popular web articles, we took issue with claims from New Climate Economy (NCE) that there was no conflict between climate change mitigation and continued economic growth. NCE argued that by taking action on climate change economic growth could be boosted. While NCE have marshalled a lot of relevant information on the how of emissions reduction, emphasising the role of cities, investment in clean energy, and adopting more efficient technologies in aviation and shipping, their argument relies on the idea that economic (i.e. GDP) growth can be decoupled from the growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

There are two kinds of decoupling. Relative decoupling means that the rate at which emissions increase is lower than the rate at which GDP decreases. That is not a lot of help in the climate crisis, since under relative decoupling, if there is economic growth, then GHGs continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, contributing to the already high risk of runaway global warming. Absolute decoupling on the other hand would mean that as the economy grew, emissions don’t. If it could be demonstrated, then we might want to rethink our critique of endless economic growth.

Last year, NCE made the claim that there was evidence for decoupling.

The decoupling of growth from carbon emissions in some of the best-performing economies, both in Northern Europe and in North America, demonstrates the gains that can be made in incomes, jobs, rates of innovation and profits from a low-carbon, resource-efficient model of growth.(34). (p. 18)

As we showed, there wasn’t such evidence. The only evidence was for relative decoupling, and decoupling within a territory, whereas for post-industrial Western economies a large proportion of emissions (estimates range from 34% to 50% for the UK) have been outsourced to extraction, manufacturing and distribution outside the territory.

In their most recent report, they again make the claim that,

The reduction in the CO intensity of global GDP adds to the growing body of evidence that countries can reduce GHG emissions while sustaining economic growth.” p.22

Yet two pages on they state what is actually the situation:

But the challenge is clear. Although GHG emissions are gradually being decoupled from growth rates, they are not doing so at anything like the rate required to put the world on a 2°C path.” p.24

This is all but saying that absolute decoupling is not happening.

However, a report “Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth” has just been published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s North America office. This appears to provide evidence that absolute decoupling is occurring in some economies. Let’s look at this.

They substitute the terms “strong” and “weak” decoupling for the more usual “absolute” and “relative”. They actually compare four economies, Germany, USA, China and India as well as reviewing global figures. They claim that Germany alone shows strong (absolute) decoupling. The US and China demonstrate week (relative) decoupling, while India does not demonstrate any decoupling. Yet, having checked the primary source (BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2015), the claim for Germany’s strong decoupling is based on the net territorial emissions and territorial energy use and not on the country’s consumption emissions (and energy use), which will include, for example, consumer goods and components made in China and products such as steel from India. This is the same problem that we drew attention to last year, an unwarranted optimism based on looking at only part of the picture. It is like trying to assess someone’s attempts at weight loss based on the food prepared at home, mostly salads, when nearly half their diet is take-away fast food and confectionery!

Not surprisingly, then, when the Böll report looks at the global situation, it concludes that

Between 2004 and 2014, global GDP has grown by 44%, while the consumption of conventional fuels has increased by 19%, resulting in a 22% increase of worldwide emissions. (p. 10)  and
There is little evidence for a changing relation between fossil energy consumption and growth.  (p.11)

To illustrate the problem, here is a graph from a 2012 report on Consumption-Based Emissions Reporting to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee:

So what do we know?

Firstly, there is undoubtedly progress on switching to renewable energy in much of the world’s economy. There are also signs of a reduction in use of the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal (although we should be cautious here since this conclusion is based on what might turn out to be a 2014 blip).

Secondly, while renewables have increased their share, and expansion of fossil fuel use has slowed, as the following graph from New Climate Economy’s 2015 report shows, fossil fuel usage is still increasing.

Graph showing that fossil fuel use predicted to continue rising til at least 2030

Additions to energy capacity fossil and renewable from New Climate Economy 2015 report p.17

Thirdly, while it is important to focus on energy generation and use, there are other factors critical to GHG transactions. De-forestation, emissions from agriculture, release of trapped polar methane, reduction of ocean capacity to store carbon dioxide, and so on. Technological optimism about energy generation should not make us forget this. For a good example of how such factors can be incorporated into a (national) net zero carbon framework, see The Zero Carbon Britain work of the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Fourthly, while there is undoubted progress being made in some places, it is the global pictue that is most important. China is to be commended for taking its emissions seriously, yet those emissions are still predicted to rise further, and it is the cumulative emissions that will kill us.

Fifthly, the hypothesis that economic growth is compatible with action on climate change remains unproven. Our best strategy is still managed degrowth to a steady state economy.

What does this mean for us in Greater Manchester?

We need to think globally and act locally – for a global impact. There are some obvious implications.

1) Continue to lobby for disinvestment from fossil fuels. Campaigns to this end in the region focus on the giant Greater Manchester Pension Fund, and on Manchester University. This disinvestment needs to be matched by a strategy of re-investment in local renewable energy production, low-carbon transport, energy conservation and stewardship of the land.

2) Continue to encourage our public bodies, GMCA, the LEPs, the Chamber of Commerce, our councils, to adopt an economic policy that rejects the endless pursuit of aggregate growth, instead focussing on real local prosperity based on conserving resources, building resilience, and investing in the replacement economy.

3) Campaign vigorously against the UK government’s disastrous policies on energy and energy conservation while supporting local initiatives for a switch to community owned and run renewable power and retrofit.

4) Campaign against fracking which will lead to an increase in GHG emissions since it will add to rather than substitute for other fossil fuels.

5) Get a grip on food and energy waste. In this, we commend Manchester City Council for its reduction in net energy use last year, although that achievement is not reflected in GHG emissions, which are calculated based on a national formula – so for example the switch to purchasing (equivalent generation of) green electricity is not reflected in the calculations for emissions. It is essential that we get better, local data on both territorial and consumption-based emissions. And there is much more to do, not least acting on the promise of building a low carbon culture in the city.

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7 Responses to The decoupling debate, one year on: the global picture, and Manchester.

  1. Dominic McCann says:

    A really good article and a great piece of work debunking claims from New Climate Economy (and others).
    I would definitely agree “It is essential that we get better, local data on both territorial and consumption-based emissions”
    This (territorial and non-territorial emissions) is the one area where I feel it might be worth commenting on the item – not withstanding the need for much more + accurate data. Thus you rightly criticise the simple examination of GDP versus territorial emissions in the case of UK or Germany. However, you could (should?) argue that in the case of China that their emissions might need to exclude the emissions for exported goods? That would make China look somewhat better than the raw territorial emissions (versus GDP) might suggest? Basically there is a need for consistency. An alternative would be to have both sets of data, ie a) territorial only b) territorial plus/minus the exported/imported emissions?
    I am not sure what the correct way of dealing with this is and in essence this boils down to “we need better data”

    • You make a logical point: export emissions should be included in the total emissions of the importer. I think we do actually need territorial data, and its collection presents fewer methodological problems than calculating total/consumption emissions, but territorial data must be read on the basis that “there is only one atmosphere”, which is why the claims of absolute decoupling by certain OECD States (and the claim by successive UK governments to have cut emissions) are so misleading.

  2. Hi Marc, you quite rightly point out the fallacy of having growth and whilst still being able to reduce emissions. Another issue, continually missing from this debate, is the fact, that it is impossible to have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. That is why I dismiss those who claim to be ‘green’, as fakes, who claim we can have continued growth.
    Thinking about, thinking Globally, acting locally, now we have a mayor. Do you know if Tony Lloyd will be attending the ‘Mayors Adapt’ ceremony in Brussels:
    Which would commit Greater Manchester to the new covenant which;
    • will feature a new target of at least 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030
    • will include both the mitigation and adaptation pillars through the integration of the Covenant of Mayors and Mayors Adapt
    • will reach a global scope, opening up participation to local authorities worldwide.
    In reality, a bit tame, especially as some cities are pledge deeper reductions in their emission.

    • Hello,
      Thanks for the positive feedback.
      I don’t know if our Tony is going to that event, but I’m not sure if it will mean a lot, and there is the potential criticism of getting on the gravy train, which was made when he went to Pope Frankie’s mayors’ summit in Rome. The link you put (German degrowth feed) didn’t go to the event though. It’s here:

      GM has made the following commitments:
      The plan outlines four headline visions for Greater Manchester by 2020:

      A rapid transition to a low carbon economy;
      Collective carbon emissions reduced by 48%;
      Be prepared for and actively adapting to a rapidly changing climate; and
      ‘Carbon literacy’ will have become embedded into the culture of organisations, lifestyles and behaviours.
      But I think the devil is in the starting point: they use a 1990 baseline, which frankly is cheating.

  3. Pingback: The decoupling debate, one year on: the global picture, and Manchester. | thebeardyguy

  4. Pingback: Greater Manchester Spatial Framework: another strategy flawed by “growth” | Steady State Manchester

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