Efficiency v. Decoupling (ref. notes)
JL Henshaw  12/12/08 3/26/13, 4/27/14

JL Henshaw 12/12/08

A.    Apparent sources of world policy for 'decoupling' the economies from environmental impacts by accelerating their growth with efficiency.

1.     WCED 1987 Brundtland Report

a)       The Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development) brought the concept of sustainable development to the fore in 1987, and the concept was fundamental in discussions at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. The Brundtland Report was premised on the argument that poverty is caused by two processes: low levels of growth and inequity. Sustainable development would entail economic growth with a ‘different content’ from the present, that is, growth with improved equity and distribution and without degradation of the environment, thus decoupling growth from environmental degradation.

b) The general definition of sustainability that all but the OECD thought would be the world standard going forward: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."  which turns out to be physically unachievable with traditional exponential economic growth of economies and the resource uses that it requires.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

2.     UN Commission on Sustainable Development 1992 Rio Conference Press release http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2002/ENVDEV615.doc.htm

a)       “There was promise in the increased focus on eco-efficiency, particularly in industry where the aim was the decoupling of economic growth from resource use.  But, the pressure on natural resources through pollution and over-exploitation continued to be a major challenge.”

3.     OECD Observer 2001 “Decoupling environment from economic growth”. OECD,  Reporting on OECD Forum, 14th May, 2001 : The Transition to Sustainable Development: Are We Making Progress in Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental Degradation?

a)        congress of the: http://www.oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/453/Decoupling_environment_from_economic_growth_.html  

b)       Policies to Enhance Sustainable Development 14-05-2001 www.sourceoecd.org/environment/9789264192683

4.     OECD, 2002 “Indicators to Measure Decoupling of Environmental Pressure from Economic Growth” (excerpt) http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/0/52/1933638.pdf

a)       The term decoupling refers to breaking the link between “environmental bads” and “economic goods.” Decoupling environmental pressures from economic growth is one of the main objectives of the OECD Environmental Strategy for the First Decade of the 21st Century, adopted by OECD Environment Ministers in 2001.

b)       The OECD has made decoupling a major focus of the work of its Environment Directorate. The OECD defines the term as follows:  The term decoupling refers to breaking the link between “environmental bads ”and “economic goods.”

c)       “Indicators to Measure Decoupling of Environmental Pressure from Economic Growth”,

5.     2002 from http://www.mfat.govt.nz/Foreign-Relations/1-Global-Issues/Environment/Governance/sustainabledev.php Ten years after the UNCED meeting, the UN convened a Summit to review progress towards implementation of Agenda 21. The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) took place in Johannesburg, South Africa over late August-early September 2002. The Summit reaffirmed UN members' commitment to sustainable development, identified new priorities for action, and launched public/private partnerships to deliver sustainable development at the sectoral level.

a)       The overarching document produced at the Summit was the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development - a four-page text which commits to building a “humane, equitable and caring global society cognisant of the need for human dignity for all” and recognizes that humankind is at a crossroad, confronting challenges of poverty, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.

b)       Another key document produced at the Summit was the “Plan of Implementation”.  It provides detailed recommendations for practical action. From New Zealand’s perspective, among the highlights are:

c)       Oceans: actions to improve oceans management: subsidy elimination; stock restoration by 2015; Marine Protected Areas by 2012; regular oceans reporting.

d)       Energy: access; cleaner technologies; more efficiency; more renewable energy sources; the phasing out of subsidies.

e)       Production and consumption: a new 10-year programme to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.

f)        Trade: trade as an engine of sustainable development; completion of the Doha Development Agenda.

g)       Small Island Developing States: acknowledgement of the vulnerability and needs of SIDS.

h)       Poverty, Social and Financial Outcomes: the WSSD held the line on human rights, gender rights and labour laws and it reinforced the objectives and outcomes of the Monterrey Conference.

i)         Water and sanitation: reaffirmation of the Millennium Development Goal to improve access to safe drinking water by 2015 and the addition of a similar target for sanitation.


6.     Latest implementation ideas: http://www.oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/453/Decoupling_environment_from_economic_growth_.html  

7.     UK long range econ planning: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/business/scp/

8.     UN long range econ planning: http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/sdissues/consumption/Marrakech/conprod10Y.htm

9.     EU long range econ planning: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/wssd/scp_en.htm

10.  OECD SD publications list http://ocde.p4.siteinternet.com/publications/easylinks/theme-isbnebook6-ISBN13-date.htm

ed 3/26/13 JLH

... Five years later the strange hope that our economy can be prompted to rely on the equivalent of perpetual motion machines to drive an ever expanding economy (without the physicists noticing) seems as strong as ever.    It has become the lead science policy of the UN's Environmental and Sustainability programs, topping the science presentation for Sustainable Development Goals for its otherwise remarkably farsighted vision of the world coming together around serious plans to become sustainable, seen in the UN's 2013 Sustainable Development Knowledge Base

11. UNEP speakers lead the International Resource Panel Decoupling Report:

"What does the only international, independent scientific panel of experts on resource use have to say about resource efficiency? ....the dilemma of expanding economic activities equitably while attempting to stabilize the rate of resource use and reducing the environmental impacts poses an unprecedented opportunity and challenge to society."

12. UNEP's "Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth" report:

"Decoupling human well-being from resource consumption is at the heart of the
International Resource Panel’s (IRP) mandate. It is also at the heart of the Green
Economy Initiative of UNEP that has just produced an impressive report on the
Green Economy (February 2011)."

Every college science student takes an algebra course in which the strange properties of exponential growth curves are discussed.   Sometimes they're taught in middle school geometry classes, where you learn how to construct a proof.   If you took any math you might even remember enough to prove it on your own for homework.   See Inside Efficiency for the world economic data curves showing this same natural growth property.

13. It's a quite simple to show, that **no matter how gradually rising at first** the area under an exponential curve (like for the resource needs of a growing economy) will exceed the area under ANY straight line, except for a straight vertical line upward, representing infinite consumption immediately at the moment you ask the question.   As Curve A ...is almost as fast a rising curve as Curve B, mathematically faster than ANY other staight slope other than vertical.  

Curve A        Curve B

Apr 27 2014 notes -

What actually needs to happen to decouple the economy from having ever faster swelling impacts on the earth is to switch to a DIFFERENT KIND of wealth production, rather new ways to deliver consumer products.  We need a switch from quantitative to qualitative growth.   That's where everyone agrees there is a LOT of room to grow.   

The need for a *different kind* of wealth is evident in the math too, and as further discussed in my article: Decoupling Puzzle - a partial answer and elsewhere.    A directly supportive view is also found in Tom Walker, 2013 The Odd Coupling: Asking the Wrong Questions about “Decoupling” Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth

The historical record clearly displays the "coupling" between "what people like to buy" (GDP) and the Energy uses for delivering products and services.  The ratio of the energy to GDP growth rate is a constant 60%  even with ever improving productivity (shown as economic efficiency).   The clear evidence is that the economy doesn't work the way the people hoping it will soon do the opposite would like.  


Fig 1 - The historical coupling of GDP growth, in constant relation to Energy, CO2 and Energy Efficiency Growth

The OECD and UN keep producing reports indicating the economy can work in the opposite way, though, as in the OECD's introduction to a longer paper "Indicators to Measure Decoupling of Environmental Pressures from Economic Growth".  The example chosen for discussing "decoupling" is as a way to eliminate the externalities of economic growth is the reduction of Sulfur Oxide emissions in the developed countries.   It's an interesting anecdotal example of a "problem solved".

Fig 2 - Developed Country GDP, and National Energy Use, GHG and Sulfur emissions

The reasoning used overlooks that "decoupling" is a claimed global effect for ALL having the economy recently produce the opposite effect, not successfully solving one thing at a time but having flurries of new unsolved problems emerging despite decades of concerted efforts for avoiding them.  It takes careful reading to see that in the words, though:

1. "As may be seen from the figure, SOx emissions have exhibited absolute decoupling from GDP growth in OECD countries. 
[...a real reduction is pollution is shown as energy use in developed countries increased, but that's not a reduction in energy use, nor in the environmental pressures that result from what we use energy for.  So the figure is misleading in suggesting a global reduction in the impacts of energy use, leaving out all but one.]

2. "This has been due in the past to an overall reduction in energy intensity with total final consumption of energy growing much slower than GDP..[and].. policies which have caused the energy sector to sharply reduce emissions per unit of energy produced."
[... more confusion between the global impact and the single pollutant success story comes from suggesting that "the reduction in energy intensity" has anything to do with it, as that has been accompanied by continued accelerating increase in energy use, just a little slower than the rate of growth in GDP.   That, of course, is the constant rate of "coupling" of GDP and energy use, and not a "change" to energy use growing slower, but a continuation of it doing what it always did.] 

Hidden from view is why the authors might find the isolated example convincing.  There's an "grand illusion" in the very same data, that seems to say that advanced OECD countries, in particular, can have fast growing GDP's without added energy use at all, that growth can decouple from energy use totally, as it appears for the US.   If it were true there might be some basis for the thrust of the report, that eliminating the entire environmental impact of GDP growth could be the natural result of even more growth.   Still, it also implies that the causes of our dangerous abuse of the earth can be the cure too, should give one pause, and the report indicates none that I can see.

The real source of the illusion is the use of local statistics for measuring global effects.   GDP growth in advanced economies, having used up their own resources first, is ever more reliant on outsourcing energy, resources and other environmental services from other countries.  The world economy works by the developed countries "providing the know-how" while others "provide the stuff" you might say.  

So.. what really causes the illusion is the accounting method used.   The world's resource accounting method only records material flows.   It seems "logical" if you want to know material flows, but economies are money machines more than material ones.   If materials don't cross national boundaries, national material accounts won't record the materials their citizens paid for the use of...    Material accounts of an economy actually can't show what end user or end product is responsible for pays for and generating the resource demands of the economy.   Creating demand is the whole purpose of an economy, it's just not as easy to count.

With effort you could link the material uses of the economy to who creates the demand for them, wherever those use occur.  Then national GDP figures would directly correspond to resource needs for delivering what it consumes in end products, including what both consumers and businesses purchase from other countries, as done in so called "Scope 4" accounting.   

The recent major,UNEP report (2011) Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, (A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel), goes the rest of the way in extending the illusion of "decoupling" based on misleading local data projected globally.  It becomes an explicit claim, that continued growth can reduce environmental impacts in real terms continually.   


Fig 3 - Decoupling as the faster rate of growth for GDP than Resource uses
for the resulting avoided environmental impacts causing continued growing accumulative reductions.

Here resource use is shown increasing ever faster, along with still faster growth of GDP, and ever still faster growth in human wellbeing.   The environmental result shown, though, is the "implied impacts avoided" from GDP growing faster than resource use, portrayed as an ever faster absolute decline in resource use effects.  

There may well be others in the policy community that take a more cautions approach, but this is fairly typical of the "official" policy presumption that now holds sway in large multi-national negotiations, such as in the UN's Post2015 development goal discussions I have closely observed on this question.  It's the tacit assumption being relied upon for  that whole array of policy plans, that continually improving resource productivity reduces resource use.  

It only overlooks the clear evidence, when looking at the whole picture as in Fig 1.  What's been most effective for making money, consistently throughout history, has been delivering more and better resource products by promoting  increasing productivity.   It's a very serious thing, but you have to joke about serious things to deal with them effectively sometimes.   The answer the world community drifted away from is right there in the word we use, "product-ivity".    Look it up!     ;-)    

An economy that achieves "decoupling" by shifting from Quantitative Growth (using growing amounts of energy to build and consume growing amounts of things) to Qualitative Growth, (making what they built work better and better) would follow a more natural Quantitative growth decoupling, still allowing qualitative growth without energy use, more like the study model example,


link to notes abv.: 12/12/08 3/26/13, 4/27/14

 jlh  synapse9.com - synapse9.com/signals