Could economic de-growth accelerate global carbon reduction?

As nations pledge to ratify the Paris Agreement signing ceremony later this month, individual countries are continuously battling the concept of transitioning into a low-carbon economy, while simultaneously boosting economic growth.

But new research from the University of Lund in Sweden has suggested that a deliberate de-prioritisation of economic growth as an important political and national policy, could allow for an accelerated reduction in carbon emissions across the globe.

“Some people argue that extensive investments in green production and sustainable consumption can increase economic growth without increasing the emissions of greenhouse gases. We wanted to test how this connection holds up, taking a global perspective,” Lund University’s professor of social work Max Koch said.

Using data from World Bank, the Global Footprint Network and OECD, Koch has studied 138 countries and their approach to both carbon reductions and economic growth. By categorising countries based on their GDP as poor, developing, emerging, overdeveloped and rich, the study revealed that economic growth coincided with greater carbon emissions.

“We are not saying that it is impossible to separate economic growth from ecological issues,” Koch said. “However, our study of global development shows a clear connection between economic development and increased greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be ignored.”

While the study noted that economic growth led to greater social inclusion and enhanced quality of life, ecological sustainability and – in the long-term – life expectancy look set to suffer as economies boom.

But with goal number one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calling on all countries to eradicate poverty by 2030, is there an ethical case to deliberately destabilise economic growth to focus on emission reductions?

According to the research conclusions, economic growth could be disregarded as a policy objective in order to focus on reducing global warming to a safe level. “Must greater prosperity necessarily lead to a greater carbon footprint and increased greenhouse gas emissions? “In theory, no, but in practice this seems to be the case,” the report states.

Decoupling effect

While this potential political model is just a suggestion, new figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) revealed that 2015 marked the first time that emissions have stalled while economic growth has increased.

In the 40 years which IEA has been sourcing information on emissions, 2015 marked the first time that the correlation between emissions and economic growth had been severed. According to the IEA, the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 were the only periods where emissions stalled or fell, but all of these were associated with global economic downturn. 2015 marks the first time that emissions have stalled while economic growth has increased.

But while a decoupling effect between economy and emissions shows signs of growing, organisations and influential figures are already calling on countries to double investment into renewable technology in order to put the world on track for the Paris goals.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for global investment into clean energy to be doubled by 2020 in order to keep global temperature increases below 2C, while IRENA has claimed that doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix by 2030 would lead to annual savings of $4.2trn.

Fair share

A more nuanced approach could be the ‘fair share’ concept, which would see rich countries attempt to bridge a 15Gt ‘ambition gap’ between their climate pledges – which looks set to cut emissions by 5.5Gt compared to the 8.3Gt by poorer countries – and take responsibility for the emissions that they have released.

This lack of responsibility from richer countries could see developing countries boycott this month’s Agreement ceremony, unless nations including US and the UK deliver on their climate promises.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie