It seems difficult, maybe even impossible to decouple GDP and resource use.
Does this mean that we need to slow down growth towards a purely need‑based economy?
Many sustainability strategies strongly rely on efforts to “decouple” GDP from resource use or GHG emissions. This would allow reconciling continued economic growth and ambitious climate targets such as those of the Paris accord, i.e. to limit climate heating to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels. We have scrutinized the empirical evidence in a recent set of systematic review articles (see here and here). For these articles, we identified >11k articles as potentially relevant. We then, in several steps, reduced this number to a final count of 836 publications that we analyzed in more detail.
We found no evidence that a continuation of past trends – including climate policies resembling those launched in the past 2 decades – could result in a sufficient level of decoupling that would even come close to those targets.
Indeed, achieving zero GHG emissions in 2-3 decades will require yearly reductions of GHG emissions on the order of 5% or more, while only slight yearly reductions were achieved in some selected countries in the past decades, and no absolute decoupling of GDP from material resources or energy was observed anywhere over longer periods of time.
Deep cuts in emissions and absolute reductions in resource use will require a reshaping of the provisioning systems converting physical resources (land, materials, energy) into the services required for societies’ wellbeing, such as clean water, healthy food, quality-education, good healthcare, hygiene, participation in society, and so on.
To achieve this, we need to reconsider both the institutional and the infrastructural systems on which our wellbeing is based.
In the past 100 years, humanity has accumulated material stocks in buildings, infrastructures and machinery that already outweigh all living organisms on the planet. These “material stocks” require an increasing fraction of all material resources used, meanwhile globally almost 60%. Growth of these material stocks is 1:1 coupled with economic (GDP) growth. Patterns of these stocks lock societies into resource-intensive practices in terms of providing us with food, health, hygiene, shelter, education and so on.
A fundamental reorganization of the ‘stock-flow-service’ nexus is required to trigger transformation towards zero GHG society.
“We need to reconsider both the institutional and the infrastructural systems on which our wellbeing is based.”
Helmut Haberl is associate professor in Human Ecology at the Institute of Social Ecology, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. He obtained his doctorate in Ecology in 1995 and his habilitation in Human Ecology in 2001, both from the University of Vienna. His research is focused on socioeconomic metabolism, land use, sustainability indicators, integrated land-change science and long-term socio-ecological research. He served as lead author in the Global Energy Assessment (2012) and in the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC (working group III). He was awarded with an ERC Advanced Grant in March 2017.
This article is related to the presentation “A sustainability diet for global social metabolism: the role of infrastructure and settlement patterns”, Episode 5 of our CLIMACT Seminar Series. Watch Episode 5.