Green growth not happening in high-income countries


The continued pursuit of economic growth in high income countries is at odds with the climate targets and fairness requirements of the Paris Agreement, say researchers.

No high-income country has achieved what could legitimately be called “green growth” – where economic growth occurs alongside emission reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement

The authors of the study, Jefim Vogel from the University of Leeds and Professor Jason Hickel from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, say green growth is in fact out of reach for high-income countries. 

The findings – published in The Lancet Planetary Health – challenge repeated claims by media and politicians that economic growth in high-income countries can be made “green” and refute claims that “green growth” is already happening. 

There is nothing green about this. It is a recipe for climate breakdown

Jefim Vogel

Historically, CO2 emissions were tightly coupled to economic activity, as expressed by GDP or gross domestic product. When GDP increased, so did emissions. Recently, several high-income countries have managed to “decouple” the two to some extent, reducing their emissions while increasing their GDP, a process called “absolute decoupling”. 

But what is needed to comply with the climate targets and fairness principles of the Paris Agreement is not just any amount of decoupling, but sufficient decoupling, the researchers point out. 

Countries need to reduce their emissions sufficiently fast to stay within their fair-shares of the “global carbon budget” for 1.5 °C or at least “well below 2C” – that is, to stay within their population-proportionate shares of the maximum amount of CO2 that can still be emitted, globally and over time, if we are to limit global warming to those levels. 

The study - Is green growth happening? An empirical analysis of achieved versus Paris-compliant CO2–GDP decoupling in high-income countries - identified 11 high-income countries that achieved “absolute decoupling” between 2013 and 2019: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. 

The analysis showed that the emission reductions achieved in these countries fell dramatically short of the rates required to comply with the Paris Agreement. 

At the achieved rates, the 11 countries would on average take over 200 years to get their emissions close to zero, and would overall emit more than 27 times their fair-shares of the global carbon budget for 1.5 °C. 

Jefim Vogel, from the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds and the lead author, said: “There is nothing green about this. It is a recipe for climate breakdown and further climate injustice. Calling such insufficient emission reductions green growth is highly misleading, it is greenwashing. 

“If green growth is to be consistent with the climate targets and fairness principles of the Paris Agreement, then high-income countries have clearly not achieved anything close to green growth and are highly unlikely to achieve it in the future. 

“Continued economic growth in high-income countries is at odds with the twin goal of averting catastrophic climate breakdown and upholding fairness principles that protect development prospects in lower-income countries. In other words, further economic growth in high-income countries is harmful, dangerous, and unjust.” 

Between 2013 and 2019, the 11 high-income countries reduced their emissions by less than 2% per year, on average. In contrast, by 2025 these countries on average need emission reductions of 30% per year - 15 times faster than what they achieved through recent decoupling - to comply with their fair-shares of the global carbon budget for 1.5 °C. 

Even in the best-performing country, the United Kingdom, emission reductions would need to be more than five times faster by 2025 (16 % per year) than the emission reductions achieved between 2013 and 2019 (3.1 % per year). 

Notably, the 11 countries featured in the study are still the better-performing high-income countries; most other high-income countries perform even worse, and many even still increased their emissions between 2013 and 2019. 

From ‘green growth’ to ‘post-growth’ 

Professor Jason Hickel, from the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and co-author of the study, added: “The pursuit of aggregate economic growth in high-income countries makes it virtually impossible to achieve the required emission reductions. 

“If high-income countries are to meet their Paris obligations, they should pursue post-growth strategies: scale down energy-intensive and less-necessary forms of production, reduce the consumption of the rich, shift from private cars to public transit. This reduces energy demand and enables us to decarbonise much faster. 

“We also need to accelerate renewable energy deployment and efficiency improvements with public financing. Post-growth can help by liberating productive capacities – factories, labour, materials – that can be remobilized to achieve urgent social and ecological goals. 

“Policies like a green job guarantee can be used for this, ending unemployment and ensuring adequate livelihoods for all. We should focus the economy on what is required for wellbeing, fairness, and ecological sustainability.” 

The authors suggest a range of steps that policymakers can take to speed up emissions reductions in fair and socially beneficial ways, including:

  • Scaling down carbon-intensive and unnecessary forms of production and consumption, such as sports utility vehicles, air travel, industrial meat and dairy, fast fashion, cruises, mansions, and private jets.
  • Reducing excess consumption of wealthy classes, and reducing inequalities in income and wealth through wealth taxes, maximum income thresholds, or luxury carbon taxes. Insulating buildings, and repurposing buildings to minimise new builds. 
  • Reducing food waste and shifting to agro-ecological farming techniques and predominantly plant-based diets. 
  • Improving public transit, bike systems and walkability to reduce car use.

Further information

Contact David Lewis in the press office at the University of Leeds by email.

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