Post-growth economists propose structural changes towards labour-intensive services, such as care or education, to make our economy more sustainable by providing meaningful work and reducing the environmentally damaging production of material goods. Our study investigates the assumption underlying such proposals. Using a multi-regional input-output model we compare the embodied energy intensity and embodied labour productivity across economic sectors in the UK and Germany between 1995 and 2011. We identify five labour-intensive service sectors, which combine low embodied energy intensity with low growth in embodied labour productivity. However, despite their lower embodied energy intensities, our results indicate that large structural changes towards these sectors would only lead to small reductions in energy footprints. Our results also suggest that labour-intensive service sectors in the UK have been characterised by higher rates of price inflation than other sectors. This supports suggestions from the literature that labour-intensive services face challenges from increasing relative prices and costs. We do not find similar results for Germany, which is the result of low overall growth in embodied labour productivity and prices. This highlights that structural change is closely associated with economic growth, which raises the question of how structural changes can be achieved in a non-growing economy.
Sustainability 2020, 12(3), 962