Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eco-efficiency and de-coupling are not delivering

To quibble with this kind of system [capitalism] about its values, to frighten it with visions about the consequences of growth, is to quarrel with its very metabolism.
(Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society, 1980)

Commerce and industry appear to have taken environmental issues to heart. Many environmental organizations are either oriented to big business, such as the Natural Step or Forum for the Future, or formed by big business, such as the World Sustainable Business Forum. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club and Rainforest Alliance increasingly orient themselves towards the industry. Environmental considerations are regarded as profitable; examples of saving energy, saving materials or saving water are repeated again and again to show how human beings, and the industry, without any sacrifice can have a smaller environmental footprint. The signs about saving water, detergent and energy are in hotel rooms all over the world. Eco-efficiency, including Factor 4 or perhaps Factor 10, is talked about. The United Nations launched a new initiative in 2009, when the financial crisis surfaced and climate change still was on everybody’s lips, the ‘Green Economy’. The message in all this is quite consistent, and has its origin in the report of the Brundtland Commission, Our Common Future (United Nations 1987), which was the starting point for the widespread usage of the term ‘sustainable development’ in 1987. ‘What is needed now is a new era of economic growth—growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable, writes Gro Harlem Brundtland in the foreword to the report (United Nations 1987: xii). One learns that it is possible to combine economic growth with social and environmental development; not only that, the message is actually that more economic growth is needed to deal with these challenges, and that a free market is best situated to deal with the issues. But as we will see this is an illusion, a delusion or just wishful thinking.

Those who argue that the market economy can deal with the environment and resource use in a good way are very fond of terms such as ‘eco-efficiency’ and ‘de-coupling’. They refer to inverted u-curves or Kuznets curves that are supposed to show that, at a certain stage, increased growth will reduce environmental problems instead of increasing them. It is shown that energy per GDP unit goes down in high-income countries or that use of other raw materials per GDP unit is less. In the period 1975–1993, the total material need per GDP unit decreased in Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States (WRI 1997). Deforestation is often rampant in countries in early stages of their growth, but tends to go down with increased income and finally reverses in high-income countries; no nation where annual per capita GDP exceeded US$ 4600 had a negative rate of forest volume (Kauppi et al. 2006). 

Meanwhile, the average American will, during his or her lifetime, consume some 450 tons of construction materials, 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of metals and 32 tons of chemicals. Consumption of raw materials in the United States increased 17-fold whereas population trebled between 1900 and 1990 (Carley and Spapens 1998). The global GDP grew from US$ 19 trillion (constant 1995 dollars) in 1980 to US$ 35 trillion in 2002, a growth of 83%. The materials use, meanwhile, increased from 40 billion tons to 55 billion tons, a growth of 36%. Expressed as kilogramme per dollar it means a reduction from 2.09 to 1.55 kilogrammes per dollar, but still the total use increased substantially (Giljum and Hinterberger 2004). The first long-term global study says

Humanity currently uses almost 60 billion tons (Gt) of materials per year. In particular, the period after WWII was characterized by rapid physical growth, driven by both population and economic growth. Within this period, there was a shift from the dominance of renewable biomass towards mineral materials. Materials use increased at a slower pace than the global economy, but faster than world population. As a consequence, material intensity (i.e. the amount of materials required per unit of GDP) declined, while materials use per capita doubled from 4.6 to 10.3 t/cap/yr. (Krausmann et al. 2009: 2697)

Figure 15.1 Materials use by material type (1900–2005).
Source: Krausmann et al. (2009).

Between 1900 and 2005, the only periods of absolute de-materialization coincided with economic recessions and the two world wars (see Figure 15.1). Across the whole period, materials use grew much faster than the population but slower than the GDP. Use per person thus doubled in the period whereas use per GDP unit decreased to only 40% of what it was earlier. Biomass, which is among other sources for human nutrition, seems to be linked primarily to population growth, whereas the use of non-renewables is much closer linked to economic growth (Krausmann et al. 2009). And the other way round as well, the energy expert Robert Hirsch (2008) estimates that a decrease of oil supply by 1% percent will shrink the GDP also by 1%. 

Emissions and resource use in some rapidly developing countries, such as China, are to a large extent the result of export to high-income countries. Most high-income countries are net importers of emissions and pollution that take place in the exporting countries (see earlier discussion about greenhouse gas emissions) and they also ‘use’ a lot of resources in exporting countries. In sync with increased consumption, transports are increasing, and for them there seems to rather be the opposite of de-coupling. Between 1990 and 1999, the growth of transport within the European Union was higher than the growth of GDP (SCB 2003). Global maritime transports are also increasing at a pace quicker than the GDP. The International Maritime Organization predicts that, in the absence of correcting policies, emissions from ships may grow by 150%–250% between 2007 and 2050. Aviation is also growing exponentially. Technological improvements have not at all sufficed to compensate for the emissions from the growing transport sector. New aircraft are 70% more fuel-efficient than those designed 40 years ago. A further 20% gain by 2015 over 1997 levels seems attainable, and perhaps a 40%–50% gain by 2050. However, such improvements are insufficient to keep emissions and resource use at reasonable levels in view of aviation’s rapid expansion (UNEP 2008, 2011).  

There are certainly areas where industries have been able to grow and total emissions and resource use have decreased. The paper and pulp industry in Sweden has, in 25 years, gone from a big waster of resources to an almost closed system. Use of water, sulphur dioxide emissions and emissions of organochlorides have all been reduced by more than 90% (Eklund 2000). But these are exceptions. Materials use seems to flatten out in more mature economies; their economic growth is also moderate. For humanity at large it is now more interesting to see what happens in the growth economies of today. A middle-income country like Mexico shows a very strong correlation between materials use and GDP, even if GDP grows at a slightly quicker pace (Gonzalez-Martinez and Schandl 2007). 
(extract from my book Garden Earth, forthcoming)

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