The Dilemma of Economic Growth

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Decoupling Won't Work.

In an effort to come to terms with the realities of our finite Earth and economic structures that demand infinite economic growth, some people have proposed the concept of "decoupling" through technological innovation and development. The thinking goes that if energy efficiency and resource efficiency can be increased through the use of technology, it will be possible to continue growing the gross domestic product (GDP) without increasing resource and energy consumption and without increasing carbon dioxide emissions. This is essentially an attempt to "decouple" economic growth from its negative impacts on resources and the environment.

Has the world succeeded with decoupling so far?

That is a good question. If we look at the world's carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP), we see an improvement from 860 grams of CO2 per dollar (gCO2/$) in 1990 to 760 gCO2/$ in 2007. Actual CO2 emissions increased, however, by 40 percent during the same period. The point is that even if emissions per unit of GDP improved, GDP increased by a greater amount, resulting in a net increase in CO2 emissions.

What are our future prospects?

If we were to improve carbon intensity in order to continue with the current rate of GDP growth without increasing CO2 emissions, we would have to improve CO2 intensity from 760 gCO2/$ in 2007 to only 40 gCO2/$ in 2050, a decrease to almost one-twentieth the current level, equivalent to an annual improvement of 6.6 percent. But the carbon intensity has only improved by 0.7 percent per year since 1990. Is such a dramatic future improvement even possible? Furthermore, if economic growth were to continue after 2050, it would be necessary to make further improvements, from 40 gCO2/$ to nearly zero gCO2/$ (and perhaps even a negative amount if economic growth were to continue).

Seen this way, it becomes clear that if we are to have continued economic growth, decoupling through the power of technology is not the answer. It is obvious that we need to challenge the very idea of economic growth.

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