Degrowth debunked or decoupling debunked?

Beyond economic growth in sustainability debates.

Author: Davina Vačkářová

We quite often witness heated disputes on the direction of sustainability transitions. These debates are slowly making its way also to popular spaces and the media, often distorted and biased. Within this discourse, there are two recognisable ideological streams: one representing the proponents of degrowth and the second representing the advocates of the current economic green growth model. While not covering the entire complexity of transformative change debates, discussions over the pathways of economic growth (or degrowth) and its impacts on ecosystems and resource use are an indispensable component of environmental and sustainability scholarship. The aim of this blog contribution is to provide some personal observations on the degrowth-decoupling debate; a complete account of the debate is not the ambition.

The degrowth concept

The concept of “degrowth” has its roots in ecological economics and political ecology. It advocates a reduction in economic output and consumption with the goal of creating a more sustainable society, resulting in achieving a good quality of life within planetary boundaries. Although there are varying interpretations of what degrowth entails, it generally involves a shift away from the current growth-oriented economic paradigm towards a more ecologically sustainable and socially just system. Degrowth has gained increasing momentum in sustainability thinking as the current economic model – despite its indubitable improvements in human well-being, environmental protection and health – still largely fails to stem the triple planetary crisis, that is climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.

The degrowth concept builds upon the systemic thinking of the 70s, mainly limits to growth, steady-state economics and related “post-growth” concepts. The degrowth agenda includes the reduction of less-necessary production, the downscaling of destructive sectors such as fossil fuels, mass-produced meat and dairy, fast fashion, advertising, cars and aviation, including private jets. The focus is on improving public services, universal access to high-quality health care, education, housing, transportation, the Internet, renewable energy and nutritious food (Hickel et al. 2022). Degrowth-based transformations include reduced working time, lower retirement age and the encouragement of part-time work. Kallis et al. (2018) provides examples of societies where growth has not been the primary agenda, including non-western experiences such as “buen vivir” or Buddhist inspired happiness. While not often directly transferable to other cultural contexts, societies and communities face the challenge of finding sustainable transitions within their livelihoods, cultural, value, spiritual and religious contexts without suffering from unwanted declines in quality of life.

What the idea of degrowth implicitly or explicitly entails is a more environmentally and socially just world. This follows current developments in ecological economics and feminist economics towards more inclusive measures of our wealth. Unless we appreciate and value currently non-monetary and un-paid aspects of nature and human lives, we cannot fully traverse towards sustainability. Nature’s services and care services are excellent examples of what has been considered the “reproductive” sphere; by being equated, nature and women have also been erased from the current economic model and more than often exploited beyond decent limits.

One of the headaches involved in implementing the degrowth concept is consumption. Consumption1 has been taking a heavy toll on precious natural systems, driving biodiversity and ecosystems to the brink of viable existence. Current evidence also shows that consumption has been one of the critical drivers of nature’s declines (Marques et al. 2019). By consuming less and producing less, we could – with high certainty – reduce our ecological footprint and work towards a more sustainable future. Moreover, high consumption footprints support economic growth of wealthy regions, and this is achieved through high material and resource throughput and concurrent environmental burden displaced to poorer regions. This phenomenon known as “ecologically unequal exchange” also reinforces economic inequalities between regions (Dorninger et al. 2021).

At the same time, consumption has been considered a prime symbol of human freedom and democracy, especially in conservative circles. The Economist’s special report highlights existing drawbacks of the degrowth approach (The Economist 2021)2. First, there is the moral problem. Production and consumption in general should remain matters of individual choice. Another issue is related to the contracting of consumption and growth. We do not exactly know the full economic consequences of a degrowth society; it could lead to significant economic disruption and job losses. Furthermore, as proponents of the economic growth model claim, a contracting, low-demand, low-investment economy is not likely to provide innovations. Innovations and financing are still at the core of sustainability transitions debates, whether we like it or not. Another potential drawback is the financing of climate transitions and nature conservation. Again, we do not know whether degrowth economies could generate enough funds to finance ambitious efforts to curb GHG emissions (to limit warming to 1.5 ˚C as stated in the Paris Agreement) and to protect the vast proportion of the Earth’s biodiversity (to increase protected area coverage to 30% of global ecosystems and to restore 30% of nature as stated in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework).

The decoupling concept  

The economic growth debate represents the “ecological modernisation” paradigm, where the major assumption builds on the idea of green economy. Within this approach, sustained economic growth and reduction of environmental pressures and impacts are simultaneously possible – the so-called decoupling. Rooted in the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”, the idea of decoupling of environmental impacts from economic growth has also received considerable attention in ecological economics. The basic tenet of the ecomodernism paradigm is that environmental change and sustainability solutions generate economic benefits, which in turn support transition towards sustainable economies. Green economy is supposed to generate millions of “green jobs”, reductions in environmental costs of pollution, and technological innovations and improvements. This decoupling aims to increase resource efficiency in all areas, including reduction of material burdens associated with production, increase in energy efficiency, or increase in land use efficiency through increased yields.

Decoupling as a model for environmental sustainability has been extensively studied. The ultimate goal is to separate increasing GDP from environmental impacts and “turn the curve” of material, energy, GHG, land, and other demand of natural assets for the socio-environmental metabolism of human society. While the evidence is often mixed and scattered, the decoupling concept has received considerable attention in all areas of societal metabolism studies. We can partially observe some signs of relative or absolute decoupling in selected topics or regions across studies. Evidence suggests that relative decoupling has not been so unusual, and a few studies suggest absolute decoupling. However, these changes can quite often be limited by time or space, following, for example, large-scale political changes, economic recessions and other crises (Haberl et al. 2020). For example, large-scale improvements in biodiversity and ecosystem services were reported after the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes (Schiermeier 2013) or the 2008 financial crisis (Marques et al. 2019). However, the analysis of decoupling is far from trivial and depends on the indicators used, the time period analysed or the reporting units involved (absolute or per capita). Frequently, the temporary savings are followed by acceleration or rebound.

In a recent report of the European Environmental Bureau (Parrique et al. 2019), the authors highlight that there is no empirical evidence for absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling currently underway. The evidence shows that there are signs of decoupling observed across different environmental domains and regions. However, this does not negate the idea that the current model of economic growth is largely unsustainable and unjust, and that in the long-term, our obsession with and addiction to GDP as the indicator of prosperity is not sustainable (Ward et al. 2016). Increasing impacts of both environmental and social displacement, of the exclusion of nature’s services and domestic care in economic accounts, and of the injustices generated by neoliberal economic models all show the need to revisit the notion of social and economic prosperity. Inclusive human well-being and a good quality of life should become measures of prosperity of nations, and so should the accounts of a healthy state of nature supporting all people.

Beyond growth

All major environmental policies – and for the moment, let us shelve the debate on whether “environmental policy” is still an appropriate concept, Biermann 2021 – implicitly or explicitly assume economic growth as a prerequisite for effective action. In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals, countries resolve to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities3. The Paris Agreement recalls that accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development (Article 10). We can find no mention of degrowth in texts of major multilateral environmental agreements. The next generation of post-2030 sustainability policies could hopefully move beyond the economic growth obsession and provide governments with negotiation grounds for a post-growth world.

But degrowth is already resonating in scientific literature and major global assessments, including IPCC reports4 and IPBES reports5, which work with degrowth in different contexts as a legitimate option of alternative economic models. Some evidence suggests that for example reducing working hours would likely provide benefits for biodiversity (Otero et al. 2020). Degrowth should become a legitimate component of both theory and practice in the sustainability transitions debate. While further research and evidence for both – degrowth and decoupling – is required, they should resonate in science, policy and public debate. In Czechia especially, degrowth and related post-growth concepts should be more appropriately reflected in national sustainability and environmental strategies. This can present itself as a particular challenge given the communist legacy and the post-revolutionary “free market” and anti-environmentalist discourse, which are still partially resonating in current policy-making.

I would like to see degrowth and decoupling as converging rather than diverging concepts; as transitional rather than absolute. For informed debates and decisions, both concepts need to be taken seriously, and this includes the opponents. We should stay open to sustainability solutions from various sources, working with various scenarios of sustainable futures and envisioning sustainability trade-offs. Even well-intended policies have proven to have unintended environmental, economic or social consequences. In a world oriented more towards inclusive human well-being and good quality of life, we would not need growth, and therefore degrowth either.

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1 Consumption patterns and biodiversity, Jianguo Liu, Reversing biodiversity loss – The Royal Society

2 The economics of the climate. Stabilising the climate, Special report – October 30th 2021, The Economist

3 Goal 8 is about promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

4 Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Working Group II Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

5 The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Global Assessment (2019) and Methodological assessment regarding the diverse conceptualization of multiple values of nature and its benefits, including biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services (2022)

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