【#1】Is Decoupling Gdp Growth From Environmental Impact Possible?

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 interpted 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 comphensive measures of societal wellbeing.

Citation: Ward JD, Sutton PC, Werner AD, Costanza R, Mohr SH, Simmons CT (2016) Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? PLoS ONE 11(10): e0164733. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164733

Editor: Daniel E. Naya, Universidad de la Republica Uruguay, URUGUAY

Received: July 2, 2021; Accepted: September 29, 2021; Published: October 14, 2021

Copyright: © 2021 Ward et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the paper and its Supporting Information files.

Funding: This work was entirely unfunded.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


The perpetually growing economy is generally regarded as a viable and desirable societal objective . The decades old question ‘ Is economic growth environmentally sustainable?’ remains contested despite its apparent simplicity. The Limits to Growth . A further independent evaluation of the projections of the World3 models showed that our actual trajectory since 1972 has closely matched the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario . Contemporary work in this broad area of assessing anthropogenic impact on the planet suggests that several ‘Planetary Boundaries’ have been crossed . The pide over the compatibility of economic growth and environmental limits extends into the general public . Decoupling has been incorporated into international indicators of sustainable development . If decoupling is possible, then these policies are valid sustainable goals; however, if decoupling is shown to be nonviable then society will need to shift away from the current ‘infinite growth’ model.

Decoupling is defined as either ‘relative’ (aka ‘weak’) or ‘absolute’ (aka ‘strong’). Relative decoupling refers to higher rates of economic growth than rates of growth in material and energy consumption and environmental impact. As a result, relative decoupling implies a gain in efficiency rather than removal of the link between impact and GDP. Recent trends (1990 to 2012) for GDP and energy use . However, there are several limitations to the inference of decoupling from national or regional data. There are three distinct mechanisms by which the illusion of decoupling may be psented as a reality when in fact it is not actually taking place at all: 1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialization of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without a concomitant rise in material and/or energy throughput, and 3) the exporting of environmental impact to another nation or region of the world (i.e. the separation of production and consumption). These illusory forms of decoupling are described with respect to energy by our colleague . This growth in inequality can manifest as higher GDP without a proportional increase in material and energy flow (i.e. relative decoupling) when a wealthy minority of the population derives the largest fraction of GDP growth but does not necessarily increase their level of consumption with as much demand for energy and materials . According to one study reports that population growth and increases in affluence are overwhelming efficiency improvements at the global scale. They find no evidence for absolute reductions in environmental impacts, and little evidence to date even for significant relative decoupling.

In the current paper, we show that decoupling scenarios can be interpted using an easily understood model of economic growth and environmental impact. The simple model was calibrated against published data derived from sophisticated pdictive studies of decoupling, and used to develop a long-term prognosis of environmental impact under continued GDP growth. The results are then used to draw conclusions about the long-term viability of GDP growth as a societal goal.

Model Derivation

We use a simple mathematical model to develop insights into decoupling behavior. We start with the IPAT equation concluded that Australia could-through adoption of specific policies- “achieve strong economic growth to 2050 … in scenarios where environmental pssures fall or are stable” (this study is referred to as “H-D” hereafter). That paper summarized the results of a significant project, the 2015 Australian National Outlook suggest that the pursuit of decoupling-if it were possible-in order to sustain GDP growth would be a misguided effort.

Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding the goal of GDP growth in favor of more comphensive measures of societal wellbeing .

Supporting Information

S1 File. Supplementary Data.xlsx.



Author Contributions

  1. Conceptualization: PCS JDW RC.
  2. Data curation: JDW SHM.
  3. Formal analysis: JDW SHM.
  4. Investigation: JDW SHM.
  5. Methodology: JDW SHM.
  6. Project administration: JDW RC PCS.
  7. Software: JDW SHM.
  8. Supervision: JDW PCS RC ADW SHM CTS.
  9. Validation: JDW SHM.
  10. Visualization: JDW.
  11. Writing – original draft: JDW PCS RC ADW SHM.
  12. Writing – review & editing: JDW PCS RC ADW SHM CTS.