Author: Brynn Tauro
Date Submitted: February 11, 2022
ABSTRACT: While economic growth persists as a presiding societal objective, its cyclical relationship with climate emissions has demonstrated that neither can be sustained without harmful environmental repercussions. Decoupling, a dissolution of the aforementioned relationship, has since been proposed as a means of establishing an economy capable of continual growth without inflicting further damage to the environment. Its viability has been subjected to polarized discourse led by economists regarding whether or not its application can yield quantifiable results, if withheld at all.
(Retrieved from the UNEP, 2011)
The purpose of this document is to discuss the efficacy of decoupling as a long-term response to mitigate climate change. It will generate a suggestion regarding its implementation as a viable alternative for policymakers to endorse.
From global temperature rise to retreating glaciers, scientific evidence of climate change has compounded since the modern climate era; it is implied that human civilization has acted as a primary driver of such change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), developed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), stated that “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses would limit climate change”. Such statements serve as call-to-actions; they are aimed to prompt discourse about initiatives to achieve necessary climate targets.
Decoupling, by and large, refers to the dissociation of one entity to another. However, the concept of decoupling in relation to climate change, could effectively be specified as eco-economic decoupling. It can be approached by a series of initiatives that aim to guide policymakers into satisfying necessary, substantial economic growth, while acknowledging that current practices used to facilitate it, are not sustainable. (Vaden et al.)
The analysis of decoupling can be categorized in terms of material use and negative environmental impacts. Resource decoupling quantifies required natural resources to facilitate said economic growth; it appears as a lowered rate of natural resource use (in comparison to that of economic growth) when decoupling is considered to be successful. It would allow resources to remain available for future generations, also known as resource efficiency. Impact decoupling qualifies any modifications to the environment derived from production and processing operations; it appears as a negative rate (opposite to that of economic growth). In order to quantify results of decoupling initiatives, economists have employed gross domestic product and emissions of carbon dioxide as markers of change. To clarify, impact decoupling is indicated by lowered emissions of carbon dioxide. Typically, geographical and temporal data may cause results to vary slightly; however, both presentations of decoupling should indicate a weakening tie. One may also come across the terms “green growth” and “degrowth”. Timothee Parrique, a French social scientist and author of Decoupling Debunked: Why Green Growth is Not Enough, has described green growth in relation to efficiency, where environmental costs decrease. Whereas, degrowth was described in relation to sufficiency, where minimal resource use could be considered the most sustainable option. As a critic of green growth, he does not believe that absolute decoupling is possible.
Adopted in 2015, The Paris Agreement is a “legally binding international treaty on climate change” in which countries have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has indicated that a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a long-term strategy capable of yielding quantifiable results. One step further, Canada created the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, advised by the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, outlining how it will achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions of 40-45% below 2005 by 2030. This advisory body will ensure that emission reduction strategies are properly implemented and reported by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to Parliament.
Greenhouse gas, specifically, is targeted as its impacts are three-fold: environmental, human health-related and economical. While environmental impacts are relatively self-explanatory, the latter impacts are discreet in comparison. However, they are created as a direct consequence of climate change. From dehydration and heat stroke from high temperatures to cancer caused by air pollution, human health has suffered significantly as a result of these changes. Thus, there is added stress placed on health and social support sectors designated to minimize and resolve damage to an already fragile economy.
The onus not only falls onto the government, but business and individuals as well. While the government comprises policymakers who enact and regulate climate plans, businesses must ensure that their operations comply with these guidelines. In addition, individual responsibility encourages all to reduce emissions at home and their workplaces with simple, but effective lifestyle changes.
Neoclassical economists, as stated in this paper, believe that decoupling is possible. Whereas, eco-economists believe the opposite (Warden et.al), as it favors developed countries. As identified by Timothee Parrique barriers include: rising energy expenditures, rebound effects, problem shifting, impact to services, limited potential of recycling and insufficient and inappropriate technological changes.
In conclusion, if a government’s main goal is human well-being, economic growth cannot be a societal goal because they are not synonymous. Environmental remediation and human well-being, however, do. Therefore, even though decoupling has been shown to be effective in mitigating climate change, there should be an overall shift in focus towards improving the quality of life for those driving the economy to begin with.
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- Vadén, T et al. “Decoupling for ecological sustainability: A categorisation and review of research literature.” Environmental science & policy vol. 112 (2020): 236-244. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2020.06.016
- Manager. “Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth.” Resource Panel, 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.resourcepanel.org/reports/decoupling-natural-resource-use-and-environmental-impacts-economic-growth.
- Canada, Environment and Climate Change. “Government of Canada.” Canada.ca, / Gouvernement Du Canada, 15 Apr. 2021, www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/greenhouse-gas-emissions-drivers-impacts.html.
- Parrique T., Barth J., Briens F., C. Kerschner, Kraus-Polk A., Kuokkanen A., Spangenberg J.H., 2019. Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. European Environmental Bureau
Brynn Tauro is currently in her third year of the Interior Design at Toronto Metropolitan University. She is interested in sustainable design as a means of facilitating timeless, responsive spaces.