The material footprint of nations

Abstract: Metrics on resource productivity currently used by governments suggest that some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling). Using the material footprint (MF), a consumption-based indicator of resource use, we find the contrary: Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent. We present a time series analysis of the MF of 186 countries and identify material flows associated with global production and consumption networks in unprecedented specificity. By calculating raw material equivalents of international trade, we demonstrate that countries’ use of nondomestic resources is, on average, about threefold larger than the physical quantity of traded goods. As wealth grows, countries tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases. With every 10% increase in gross domestic product, the average national MF increases by 6%. Our findings call into question the sole use of current resource productivity indicators in policy making and suggest the necessity of an additional focus on consumption-based accounting for natural resource use.

PNAS, May 2015, 112 (20), pp. 6271-6276

Desacoplamiento de la realidad

La validez de la narrativa del crecimiento verde queda muy tocada tras la publicación de un nuevo detallado y riguroso informe científico. El tiempo se agota y la piedra angular de la propuesta del establishment no se ha demostrado como viable en ninguna circunstancia de forma relevante.

El Diario, July 8th 2019, Opinión y Blogs

When green growth is not enough

In recent years, the concept of green economic growth, i.e. the expansion of the economy without an accompanying increase in environmental harm, has gained political acceptance. However, the idea that this policy alone is enough to deal with the environmental challenges we face appears to be founded on little to no scientific basis.

META, the news channel of the European Environmental Bureau


Decoupling debunked – Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability

Is it possible to enjoy both economic growth and environmental sustainability?

This question is a matter of fierce political debate between green growth and post-growth advocates. Considering what is at stake, a careful assessment to determine whether the scientific foundations behind this decoupling hypothesis are robust or not is needed.

This report reviews the empirical and theoretical literature to assess the validity of this hypothesis. The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.

‘Decoupling debunked’ highlights the need for the rethinking of green growth policies and to complement efficiency with sufficiency.

Dynamic Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) and material requirements in scenarios of global transition to renewable energies

A novel methodology is developed to dynamically assess the energy and material investments required over time to achieve the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in the electricity sector. The obtained results indicate that a fast transition achieving a 100% renewable electric system globally by 2060 consistent with the Green Growth narrative could decrease the EROI of the energy system from current ~12:1 to ~3:1 by the mid-century, stabilizing thereafter at ~5:1. These EROI levels are well below the thresholds identified in the literature required to sustain industrial complex societies. Moreover, this transition could drive a substantial re-materialization of the economy, exacerbating risk availability in the future for some minerals. Hence, the results obtained put into question the consistence and viability of the Green Growth narrative.

Energy Strategy Reviews, Vol. 26, November 2019

Finance, energy and the decoupling: an empirical study

Abstract: This paper investigates the empirical and theoretical basis of the decoupling between energy throughput and economic growth, with a critical view of the use of the decoupling concept as a policy priority. We provide an analysis of the historical trends of the metabolic pattern of European economies over a period of 18 years focusing on the changes in energy throughput and financial assets. The results show that energy consumption per hour of labor has remained constant, suggesting that no significant changes in production processes or technology have taken place in the productive sectors of the economy. The contribution of this paper is to establish a bridge between the economic analysis of financialization and the societal metabolism analysis of the economic process from a biophysical point of view. We argue that this bridge is crucial to draw attention to the biophysical consequences of financialization (a relative decoupling) and critically assess the pertinence of policies aimed at encouraging the decoupling in the context of increasing inequality.

Mapping sustainable wellbeing viewpoints on two dimensions: technical and socio-cultural decoupling

It seems that discussions between camps such as ”green growth” and ”degrowth” often end up being debates, even if the aim would be a dialogue. The purpose of this paper and presentation is to draw a map of the main arguments of some of the camps, with the hope of improving the dialogue.

Discussion on sustainable wellbeing is often carried along two main dimensions. The first dimension concerns the technical decoupling question: Can economic growth can be decoupled from its environmental ills effectively and rapidly enough? Second, there is the socio-cultural decoupling question: Can the humanity deal with the environmental crisis through a moderate or radical reform of the economic system – by creating a better economy – or do we need a more in-depth revolution in the relationship between the economy and the non-economy, i.e. everything else that is not mere economy, such humanity as a socio-cultural system and the Nature.

In this paper and presentation I will draw a map using these two dimensions. On the map I will identify six perspectives, or camps, of sustainable wellbeing: economic growth, green growth, green economy, economic degrowth, green society detached from economic growth, and deep green society detached from economic valuation. In addition to these six perspectives, I will identify a blind spot – the dominant taken-for-granted relationship with the socio-cultural decoupling question. Finally, I will offer illustrations of how each of the viewpoints and the blind spot. I will argue that this map and the illustrations offer a collective reference point for discussants to better understand each other’s arguments.

Additional links:

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Mapping sustainable wellbeing viewpoints on two dimensions: technical and socio-cultural decoupling“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Economic values, capital accumulation and degrowth

Historically, value theories used to be at the heart of critiques of capitalism. However, contemporary economists rarely focus on value theories, and the labor theory of value has not been discussed in relation to macroeconomic growth or in the context of degrowth. In this article it is theoretically and empirically demonstrated that economic values at the macroeconomic level are fundamentally determined by the use of production factors, primarily labor and physical capital as predicted by the labor theory of value. Technical innovations or efficiency gains increasing utility without raising the costs of production do not add to the GDP unless they stimulate investments in physical capital. It is also shown that the Solow model, which is frequently applied in growth accounting, cannot be meaningfully applied to predict changes in the monetary value of production at the macro level and that results obtained with this model, indicating that increases in total factor productivity play a major role in achieving GDP growth, are theoretically flawed. In practice, GDP growth is mostly explained by capital accumulation and a key question is whether or not capital accumulation can be decoupled from the use of materials and energy. What is certain is that GDP growth cannot, according to the labor theory of value, be decoupled from capital investments and degrowth therefore implies the end of capital accumulation. Beyond GDP growth the role of human labor in the realization of economic values will be accentuated.

Additional links:


This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Economic values, capital accumulation and degrowth“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Ecomodernism and degrowth

In 2015, 19 scientists and thought leaders published “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” with “the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” Like degrowth, ecomodernism criticizes mainstream environmentalism, considers “human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet inseparable,” and aims to shrink aggregate environmental impacts while eliminating poverty and enhancing well-being. These two movements diverge completely, however, in their strategies for achieving these goals. In contrast to previous critiques, we aim to challenge the foundational claims underlying the ecomodernist agenda.

Ecomodernists advocate substitution and intensification to enable decoupling. For them, substitution means moving up the “technology ladder” from wildlife harvesting to controlled biomass appropriation to fully synthetic production. Intensification refers to increases in land efficiency such as augmented agricultural yields or denser human settlement. Ecomodernists promote decoupling not just in the traditional sense — increasing material living standards while decreasing environmental impacts — but also physically decoupling humans from nature. They believe that we save nature by not using it.

Yet both substitution and intensification rely on ever greater energy inputs; thus the ecomodernist proposal requires an abundant, cheap, clean energy source. Modernization has not merely left some people behind, but has actively created winners at the direct expense of billions. Producing and consuming less unequivocally reduces environmental damage. Humans are nature as such, inextricably integrated with the web of life.

Additional links:

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Ecomodernism and degrowth“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

Green Economy – Mut zur Effizienz und Befreiung

Herausgeber_innen: In der Postwachstumsdebatte wird intensiv das Konzept der Grünen Ökonomie diskutiert. Als neues Leitbild verspricht es Lösungen für ökologische und ökonomische Probleme. Doch kann die Green Economy das wirklich? Wenn es der Gesellschaft tatsächlich gelingen soll, in der Zukunft anzukommen, ist es notwendig umzusatteln und sowohl Ross als auch Reiter zu wechseln.

Arbeit in der Postwachstumsökonomie – Wir senken das Bruttosozialprodukt

Herausgeber: Der Green New Deal wird weder die ökologische Krise bewältigen noch Arbeits losigkeit aus der Welt schaffen. Im Gegensatz dazu versuchen Konzepte für eine solidarische Postwachstumsökonomie beiden Herausforderungen gerecht zu werden.

Rethinking Climate and Energy Policies

The publisher about the book: This book calls for rethinking current climate, energy and sustainability policy-making by presenting new insights into the rebound phenomenon; i.e., the driving forces, mechanisms and extent of rebound effects and potential means of mitigating them. It pursues an innovative and novel approach to the political and scientific rebound discourse and hence, supplements the current state-of-knowledge discussed in the field of energy economics and recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Building on central rebound publications from the past four decades, this book is divided into three main sections: Part I highlights new aspects of rebound economics by presenting insights into issues that have so far not been satisfactorily researched, such as rebounds in countries of the Global South, rebounds on the producer-side, and rebounds from sufficiency behaviour (as opposed to rebounds from technical efficiency improvements). In turn, Part II goes beyond conventional economic rebound research, exploring multidisciplinary perspectives on the phenomenon, in particular from the fields of psychology and sociology. Advancing such multidisciplinary perspectives delivers a more comprehensive understanding of rebound’s driving forces, mechanisms, and policy options. Part III puts rebounds into practice and presents several policy cases and sector-specific approaches, including the contexts of labour markets, urban planning, tourism, information and communication technologies, and transport. Lastly, the book embeds the issue into the larger debate on decoupling, green growth and degrowth, and identifies key lessons learned for sustainable development strategies and policies at large. By employing such varied and in-depth analyses, the book makes an essential contribution to the discussion of the overall question: Can resource-, energy-use and greenhouse gas emissions be substantially reduced without hindering economic growth?

Table of contents

1. Introduction: Rebound Research in a Warming World – Santarius, Tilman (et al.)
2. After 35 Years of Rebound Research in Economics: Where Do We Stand? – Madlener, Reinhard (et al.)
3. Indirect Effects from Resource Sufficiency Behaviour in Germany – Buhl, Johannes (et al.)
4. The Global South: New Estimates and Insights from Urban India – Chakravarty, Debalina (et al.)
5. Production-Side Effects and Feedback Loops Between the Micro and Macro Level – Santarius, Tilman
6. Exploring Rebound Effects from a Psychological Perspective – Peters, Anja (et al.)
7. Towards a Psychological Theory and Comprehensive Rebound Typology – Santarius, Tilman (et al.)
8. Behavioural Changes After Energy Efficiency Improvements in Residential Properties – Suffolk, Christine (et al.)
9. Energy Efficiency and Social Acceleration: Macro-level Rebounds from a Sociological Perspective – Santarius, Tilman
10. Labour Markets: Time and Income Effects from Reducing Working Hours in Germany – Buhl, Johannes (et al.)
11. Urban Planning: Residential Location and Compensatory Behaviour in Three Scandinavian Cities – Næss, Petter
12. Tourism: Applying Rebound Theories and Mechanisms to Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation – Aall, Carlo (et al.)
13. The Internet: Explaining ICT Service Demand in Light of Cloud Computing Technologies – Walnum, Hans Jakob (et al.)
14. Transportation: Challenges to Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Road Freight Traffic – Walnum, Hans Jakob (et al.)
15. Between Green Growth and Degrowth: Decoupling, Rebound Effects and the Politics for Long-Term Sustainability – Nørgård, Jørgen (et al.)
16. Conclusions: Respecting Rebounds for Sustainability Reasons – Santarius, Tilman (et al.)

The opportunities of the blue economy

Premise: Years ago some small innovative companies began to replace the petrochemical surfactants with biodegradable ingredients, fatty acids of palm oil. All the major manufacturers utilized the biodegradability with the result that huge areas of rainforest have been converted to intensive cultivation of oil palm. These activities taking out the orangutan habitat, chimpanzees and many other species, which in a few years have become a serious risk of extinction. In addition, palm oil is sent to the West and burned for electricity generation to replace oil, natural gas or coal. So in the end, the “clean” energy of the West is responsible for the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest, which strongly absorbs carbon emissions. The perverse use of CDM (clean development mechanism) and its CER (certified emission reduction) is another example of distortion of the green economy. Large firms and multinationals buying CERs from virtuous companies in order to fall within the parameters of pollutant emissions set by the Kyoto Protocol. In this way there is a substantial circumvention of the rules to protect the environment. The nation from which Europe imports more photovoltaic cells is China (with 3.4 md euros in 2010). The production of photovoltaic panels require a large amount of energy. In China, this energy comes from coal to four-fifths. The panels must be transported in Europe. In a paradoxical way, the production and distribution of the panels produces more CO2 into the atmosphere that avoids using the same panels!
In the last decade, we saw the race to the electric car, which locally produces zero emissions. If you produce the necessary electricity by burning coal somewhere else, we have moved elsewhere the problem without solving it. Europe proves to be still far away from an economic system that makes the environment one of its founding values.

Contribution to the 3rd International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Venice in 2012.

Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?

Abstract: The argument that human society can decouple economic growth—defined as growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—from growth in environmental impacts is appealing. If such decoupling is possible, it means that GDP growth is a sustainable societal goal. Here we show that the decoupling concept can be interpreted using an easily understood model of economic growth and environmental impact. The simple model is compared to historical data and modelled projections to demonstrate that growth in GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. We also note that GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. GDP growth is therefore a questionable societal goal. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.

Decoupling: A Dangerous Fantasy

Teaser: Decoupling offers a dangerous neoliberal fantasy that we can overcome environmental limits to indefinite economic growth.

From the article:
. . . While asserting the necessity of dramatic decoupling for any hope of genuine sustainable development within a growth-dependent economy, in short, UNEP simultaneously admits that: 1) there is virtually no evidence that decoupling works; 2) the conceptual basis for even imagining it is weak; and 3) even if it were possible it would be politically infeasible.
Paradoxically, UNEP subsequently claims that even though overall resource use has risen dramatically worldwide “some decoupling of resource use from economic activity has taken place: the world economy has been dematerialising.” In this statement, astoundingly, intensified resource extraction is reframed as evidence of dematerialisation itself! . . .