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Green growth: a pipe dream?

The green growth narrative has dominated the UNEP and EU political agendas. In July of this year,a report was published which undermined their feasibility as the only strategies for sustainable development. The conclusion drawn by the authors is that there is no empirical evidence confirming the possibility of decoupling economic growth from negative environmental impacts. Such a decoupling seems unlikely to be achieved in the future. The report highlights the need to rethink green growth policies. The authors state that the scientific literature on decoupling is a figurative “needleless haystack”. In their opinion, economic green growth should not be the main objective of environmental policy because it cannot be achieved without affecting the environment.

The report identifies 7 aspects that render the assumption that further economic growth is possible without impact on the environment infeasible.

Increasing energy costs. When extracting resources, cheaper options are used first, while the mining of the remainder is a more resource- and energy-intensive process, which leads to a growing degradation of the environment. Ricochet effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or fully compensated for by reallocating the saved resources and money to another area of the same type of consumption (e.g. more frequent use of a fuel-efficient car) or other types of consumption (e.g. buying airline tickets for fuel savings). Shifting the problem. Solving one environmental problem creates new issues and exacerbates others, e.g. the production of electric vehicles affects the resources of lithium, copper and cobalt. Underestimated impact of services. The service economy can only exist alongside and not instead of the material economy. Services have a significant environmental footprint, which still increases, while not quite substituting the environmental footprint of goods. Limited potential for recycling. Recycling indices are currently low, and they grow slowly. Recycling processes still require significant amounts of energy and primary raw materials. Insufficient and inappropriate technological change. Technological progress is not geared towards production factors, which are important for environmental sustainability and do not lead to innovation. The latter would reduce the impact on the environment. Such progress is not sufficiently ground-breaking, because it does not replace other undesirable technologies and is not fast enough. Reallocation of costs. What has so far been reported and qualified as an actual occurrence of decoupling in some isolated cases, was, in general, only an apparent separation resulting from the externalisation of environmental impacts from high-consumption countries to low-consumption countries.

The authors postulate that political decision-makers should abandon the risky strategy of green growth and focus on directly decreasing production and economic consumption in the richest countries.

Krzysztof Żarnotal

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