The “Decoupling” Travesty


The economic growth fanatics have reached a new low in rationality and integrity. Recently the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that, despite 3% global economic growth, CO2 emissions from energy sources increased only slightly for the second straight year. The fanatics immediately told us what this meant: energy use has been decoupled from economic growth, so the latter can continue indefinitely.

For example, Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), responded that, “The sense of excitement … is palpable, because in essence they’re showing that combating climate change is perfectly compatible with continuing economic growth, and that’s hugely significant.”

This conclusion is preposterous and brings shame to those who propagate it. Here are the key reasons:

First, the IEA numbers are estimates rather than measurements, and are based on preliminary and rather tenuous data. According to Benjamin Zycher, an energy analyst at the hyper-conservative American Enterprise Institute, the decoupling conclusion is, “… just silly …” because, “The estimates of global greenhouse gas emissions really vary depending on which data set you are looking at.” He also noted that energy-related emissions are likely higher than the IEA indicates because, although some nations had flat emissions based on unique factors, these are hard to replicate elsewhere.

Second, the numbers pertain to a single greenhouse gas. Methane, a potent contributor to global warming, is completely ignored. This is despite the looming possibility that this gas will trigger calamitous tipping points through massive releases from seabed hydrates and melting permafrost. Again, uncertainty about the data makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Rachel Cleetus, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, remarked that, “The story … is not only are the [methane] emissions on the rise, but because of data issues, we’re not getting a good handle on them.”

Third, the numbers pertain exclusively to the production and consumption of energy. They thus exclude non-energy sources of greenhouse gases such as deforestation, livestock, landfills, wastewater, and soil disturbances from farming. Taken together, these account for about 40% of global emissions. The IEA focuses on energy and understandably ignores these factors, but other analysts must take responsibility for a broader view, especially if they are going to draw far-reaching and potentially ecocidal conclusions.

Fourth, actual measurements indicate that the atmospheric CO2 concentration is not declining, but is instead rising rapidly. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just announced that, according to data from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory, the CO2 level in 2015 jumped by an unprecedented 3.05 parts per million (ppm) to a record 402.6 ppm. If emissions from energy sources are stable, there is scant evidence for this in the real world.



But it gets worse for the expansionists. Their attention is fixated on climate change, which is just one component of the environmental crisis now facing humankind. As I have stated repeatedly on this website, the true crisis is ecological overshoot – the violation of multiple environmental impact limits, not just those related to greenhouse gases. The solution is not energy efficiency, but rapid impact reduction: swift and humane economic contraction in conjunction with energy and other efficiency gains. To make it visually clear just how profoundly the overshoot crisis and its solution are being distorted, have a look at the graphs below:


Growth vs Rapid Impact Reduction


Depicted here are three of the main components of overshoot: excessive greenhouse gas emissions (graphs at left), habitat destruction (center) and chemical and radiological toxification (right). The graphs at top reflect continued economic growth, while those at bottom reflect rapid impact reduction.

The graph at top left grants all the efficiency assumptions of the growth fanatics. It therefore shows greenhouse gas emissions stabilizing in the current period and then declining steadily. Habitat destruction and toxification continue to rise because they respond to economic growth rather than energy efficiency.

Now step back and compare the expansionary profile at top with the contractionary profile at bottom. The disparity clearly, emphatically, and embarrassingly indicates just how far even the most optimistic interpretation of energy efficiency leaves us from a sustainable world.

To summarize, what the growth fanatics are saying is that …

• given two consecutive years of relative CO2 stability …
• based on questionable, estimated, and preliminary data …
• for a single greenhouse gas …
• in a single economic sector …
• which contradicts empirical measurements and …
• represents a fraction of the ecological perils associated with economic growth …

… this growth can safely continue.

As Tweedledee said to Alice: “That’s logic”.

Frank Rotering
March 2016

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *