A wake-up call about the economic reality of a green society


Policymakers often talk about moving towards a green society, but in the largest study of its kind, an international team of researchers has found that this would restrict economic growth.

The study, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE on 14 August, shows that economic independence from carbon emissions and material consumption would only be possible at economic growth rates per capita below 0.9% and 1.4%, respectively – far below historical and target growth rates.

Governments must accept this reality, abandon economic growth as the ultimate indicator of progress and adopt new priorities, say the researchers.

Dr Julia Steinberger from the University of Leeds, who led the research team, explains: “Right now, policies and governments are judged almost solely on their capacity to foster economic growth. Instead, they should be judged using other criteria, such as health, education, environment and equality.”

In the study, the material consumption and carbon emissions over the period 1970–2005 were analysed for nearly 40 countries – representing over two-thirds of the world’s population – including industrialised, developing and emerging nations. 

“It is important to understand the history and past trends of material and energy dependency of economies to predict the future demands mankind will put on the planet,” says Dr Steinberger.

There were many differences between the histories of economic growth and dependency on natural resources among the countries studied. However, the economies of the successful developers – including South Korea, Portugal, Spain, Singapore and Greece – share one important trait: greater long-term dependencies on material consumption and carbon emissions than the world average. In Greece, for example, the increase in the rate of material use required for each increment of economic growth is over three times the world average.

“This highlights a problem in which emerging countries may become trapped in resource-intensive development that, given the limited resources of our planet, is unsustainable,” said Dr Steinberger.

Furthermore, once a country has attained a high level of economic and industrial development, many experts had suggested that a combination of factors could lead to economic independence from carbon emissions and material consumption – so-called ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘dematerialisation’. But the new study found that the maximum economic growth that could be achieved following decarbonisation and dematerialisation is only 0.9% and 1.4%, respectively. For comparison, past UK per capita economic growth rates have averaged around 2.2%, in line with other EU countries.

“The idea to grow first and to deal with environmental issues later has been proven false empirically. Its appeal was and is based more in wishful thinking rather than sound evidence,” concludes Dr Steinberger.

“Alternative development priorities are urgently needed, both for industrialised and emerging economies, to reduce material consumption levels for the former and avoid the trap of resource-intensive development for the latter.” 

Further information:

The research was funded by the Austrian National Science Fund project, ‘The Global Metabolic Transition’, and the United Nations Environment Programme’s Bangkok office for Asia and the Pacific.

Dr Julia Steinberger, University of Leeds, led the international research team, with the data set developed by the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna, Austria, and CSIRO in Australia, and analysed at the Technical University in Vienna.

The paper, ‘Development and dematerialization: an international study’, was published in the journal PLOS ONE on 14 August 2013.

Dr Julia Steinberger is available for interview. Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email pressoffice@leeds.ac.uk