Decoupling for ecological sustainability


The idea of decoupling “environmental bads” from “economic goods” has been proposed as a path towards sustainability by organizations such as the OECD and UN. Scientific consensus reports on environmental impacts (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions) and resource use give an indication of the kind of decoupling needed for ecological sustainability: global, absolute, fast-enough and long-enough. This goal gives grounds for a categorisation of the different kinds of decoupling, with regard to their relevance.

We conducted a survey of recent (1990–2019) research on decoupling on Web of Science and reviewed the results in the research according to the categorisation.

The reviewed 179 articles contain evidence of absolute impact decoupling, especially between CO2 (and SOX) emissions and evidence on geographically limited (national level) cases of absolute decoupling of land and blue water use from GDP, but not of economy-wide resource decoupling, neither on national nor international scales.

Evidence of the needed absolute global fast-enough decoupling is missing.

Raising the bar on a ‘successful’ decoupling


Decoupling environmental ‘bads’ from economic ‘goods’ is a key part of policies such as green growth and circular economy that see economic growth as desirable or necessary, and also see that current use of natural resources and its environmental impacts is unsustainable.

We estimate what a ‘successful decoupling’ (2% annual GDP growth and a decline in resource use by 2050 to a level that could be sustainable and compatible with a maximum 2°C global warming) would mean in terms of its type, timeline and size. Compared to 2017, ‘successful’ decoupling has to result in 2.6 times more GDP out of every ton of material use, including in-use material stocks.

There are no realistic scenarios for such an increase in resource productivity.