The Growing Effort to Decouple GDP from Energy and CO2,
is having no effect,
raising serious questions about the nature of our plan.
The graph below (Figure 1) shows the 46 year record of world GDP PPP, Energy, and CO2, during which their growth rates have been in constant proportion to each other, called their “coupling”. The things to read are 1) the lack of accumulative departure from the steady trends, and 2) how closely the exponential trend lines (dotted) follow the data. It shows that the long trend still holds despite both big efforts and bigger promises that accelerating growth using more efficient processes would separate the expanding economy from its impacts. Focusing so much on the “positive” completely disguised the big picture, though, that in 46 years there has been no accumulative effect at all. So there’s a lot to explain, yes, but the graphs below show persistent regular behaviors of the economy as a whole resilient system, a problem not yet faced at all.
The irregularly fluctuating curves below (Figure 2) show the annual coupling for world Energy and CO2 growth rates to World GDP (PPP) is shown. The scale at the left shows their coupling as the each one’s growth rate as a fraction of the GDP growth rate, never going above, once going below zero. The important thing is to notice is that the fluctuations vary around nearly horizontal averages, as if the economy is guided by an “invisible hand” that brings the average back to the long term near constant trend. It says the fluctuations have been adding up to no effect. In my view is says there is functional coupling between the physical systems of the economy, working smoothly to replace old systems with new to maximize the growth of profits for the whole employing a varying use of resources. Of course there are always more viewpoints, but this at least clearly displays resource coupling to GDP as an “emergent property” of the economic system as a whole. So interpretation needs to be based on looking for exceptions to that default rule, now that “no change” is established as a natural property of the system as a whole.
It has really been since 1970 that people have been holding out the possibility of “dematerializing” GDP to “decouple” it from environmental impacts. Figure 3. below shows the rise and fall of the discussion of ‘decoupling,’ in terms of the publication of the term in books, shown here with the frequency of publication for ‘information overload’ for comparison. Both took off in the late 1960’s, apparently reflecting the emergence of serious environmental awareness. The idea that money soon would have no material impact on the environment took hold throughout many institutions. That’s odd considering that GDP is specifically a measure of the availability of material goods and services.
How the world community came to say that “sustainable development” would reverse this stable natural relationship between the economy and ist resource uses is described in more detail in April 2014 in The Decoupling Puzzle.
Small fluctuations do keep causing excitement, though, such as for both devoted climate deniers and sustainabilty advocates, each picking out brief trends to exclaim, seeming to affirm their hopes. The real evidence is that the local fluctuations never seem to result in a change in the direction of the whole, like ripples on a pond that always level out. The latest anomaly is the little flattening at the end of the CO2 trend, that some have claimed was a sign of turning the corner as promised by the myth of decoupling the economy from its impacts. Given the pattern of large and small fluctuations with no trend in them this most recent anomaly seems unlikely to signal a change in how the global economy has long worked. Why? The solution is generally is to look at the whole picture and figure out what is missing from local pictures, since it’s the whole we need to come to terms with.
So we need to be suspicious of the world policy to maximize growth at any cost, especially when growth is driving ever faster changes in how people live all over the world and becoming increasingly culturally disruptive in doing so. In nature growth is how things are begun, but natural systems then turn to refining the systems growth builds, not driving their growth to a point of failure. Maximizing growth might seem logical as a way for societies to keep up with social distress and debts, but it’s now because people listen to promise of profits and don’t seem to ever connect the disruptive changes that come with it till later. From a ecological view that way of thinking seems more persuasively what is actually causing the societal problems and mounting debts we are trying to correct, our solutions having once rare but now increasingly common disruptive consequences for people’s lives. We talk lightly about replacing people with robots, for example, overlooking that the robots only work for the banks. That’ll make people and governments ever more indebted and incapable of responding to climate change, and the chain of consequences just goes on and on. It’s not solved by people becoming desperate, as with the current populist revolt, and trying to force the world to work as before. More disruption is not the solution, only less.
There’s an alternative business model that could serve as a model for growth without disruption, that switches to paying the profits forward once they have been paid back… for achieving truly integrated development using biomimicry of ecosystem designs. That’s discussed in article linked from my next post, Culture, Finance-for-Development and tPPPs.
use biomimicry for how nature uses growth to build thriving and enduring systems.
It would be a way for businesses large or small to begin to experiment with how nature succeeds in creating such beautiful purposeful systems. It’s a fairly simple formula, that we all know from how we successfully complete business or home projects. It starts with collecting innovations and then selecting what to refine for eventual release in the environment (like for our children or business ideas). If we were just to keep adding innovations with no turn toward refining something into a successful product, all the effort is wasted.
To start you study the similarity between nature’s way of building things to perfection and how we do our own home or office projects! They all take place in “three acts.” The first act is for “innovating,“ the second for “refining,“ and the third act the “release” of the finished product into its waiting environment (IRR). You see the same three acts in the birth cycle, and in the start-up of new businesses too, as well as the formation of new cultures and most every other kind of individual development. The whole trick is to pay attention to the inspiration that starts it off, anticipating the stages to move smoothly from one act to the next, first adding more and more innovations, to then refine the ones worth keeping to the end. It’s what comes most naturally when we can see the whole effect.
When you can see the whole it’s easy to recognize the point when adding more innovations begins to work against getting something finished, called a “point of diminishing marginal returns”. Of course on a home or office project what tells you it’s time to shift to finishing what you started is just sensing what can you finish while you have time and resources. For anything measurable, like wealth, the point of diminishing marginal returns is when it becomes more profitable to put efforts into getting things to market rather than try more experiments. To apply it to the world all you do is ask: “What is our real plan here?” and look around for how to perfect what we started, and stop taking on more and more that we probably won’t be able to finish. It’s a matter of shifting to pursuing achievable goals rather than cling to thinking ever bigger with no end (but real failure) in sight. As on big personal, community or business projects, just having the right goal doesn’t necessarily make the work easy. It just makes the work a lot better, and the end something rewarding.
I discuss that in relation to what the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals really need to be a success: . A draft paper waiting for a publisher that discusses the details at some length is: Culture, Finance-for-Development and PPPs..
- The global GDP PPP curves show IEA data from 1971 to 2008 spliced to overlapping World Bank Data from 1990 to 2016. The curves for global Energy are from BP statistics and the Global CO2 curves show data from WRI.
- The Energy and CO2 curves were each scaled in relation to the GDP curves in proportion to their coupling consaverage growth rates. As growth curves are shaped only in relation to themselves, this does not significantly distort the picture.
- dy/Y is the ratio of the change in a measure over the total, like an interest rate or growth rate measures. I get smoother curves by blending a bit, using a center weighted 5 point bracket.
- The world bank was my source for GDP PPP and for from 1990 to 2016
- WRI has a very nice set of data on CO2 “Total GHG Emissions Including Land-Use Change and Forestry – 1990-2014” from the CAIT Climate Data Explorer
- The IEA news item statement that CO2 flattened for 2016 and 2017 was used, just to show how little effect it would have if true
- BP offered energy data in MtOe in its “Statistical Review of World Energy – all data 1965-2017”