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Climate Change

Published on April 6th, 2016 | by Sandy Dechert


20+ Nations Have Decoupled GDP From Emissions

April 6th, 2016 by  

Since 2000, more than 20 countries have successfully decoupled (both curbed their greenhouse gas emissions and boosted their gross domestic product), says World Resources Institute analyst Nate Aden.

Aden’s research took off from a recent International Energy Agency report on how energy-related emissions have “decoupled” from economic growth over the last two years. The decoupling events present an opportunity to preserve existing world economic security while curbing global climate challenges.

The WRI author finds that as countries begin to transition to a new climate economy, several debates have arisen:

  • Can economic growth drive climate stabilization, or even coexist with it?
  • Can climate stabilization drive economic growth?

Aden points to recent developments in the trend toward decoupling:

“The debates on growth and resources are complex, fractious and centuries old, and while they won’t be resolved in the immediate future, recent developments show that global greenhouse gas  emissions stayed flat in 2014 and 2015 while GDP continued to grow. This emerging trend is supported by 21 countries that have managed to reduce GHG emissions while growing GDP.”

The data-rich infographic shown here concisely summarizes his observations:

21 countries decouple GDP from GHG emissions, 2000-2014

Here’s an excellent related article on decoupling with a different stance. A few specifics on decoupling trends:

Decoupling time record. The United States—currently the second-largest CO2 emitter—is the largest nation to have experienced consecutive years (2010-2012) decoupling economic growth from growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

The US Energy Information Administration forecasts in its analysis of the Clean Power Plan that a cleaner post-2020 electricity system would extend GDP-GHG decoupling. As illustrated in the figure, CPP implementation is expected to reduce total US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions should drop by a further 6% between 2020 and 2025, with a simultaneous 13% rise in GDP.

Sustained decoupling divergence. In the United Kingdom, economic growth and CO2 emissions have diverged periodically (6 years of absolute decoupling with an emissions drop from 591 to 470 million metric tons of energy-related CO2 and GDP increase from $2.1 to $2.7 trillion.

Causes of decoupling: shift away from domestic industries, carbon taxes, and increased renewable use. No single trend has driven GDP-GHG decoupling across all countries. A huge number—more than 90%—of decoupled nations also reduced the industrial share of their economies. This is by no means universal, however. In Switzerland and the Czech Republic, the industrial portion of GDP remained essentially steady, and in Bulgaria and Uzbekistan industrial activity expanded along with decreased emissions.

Across the 21 nations, the average change in the industry share of GDP was a 3% reduction, with an average CO2 drop of 15%. Sweden decoupled due to policy changes, including carbon taxes. Denmark rapidly increased renewable energy, reducing emissions while stimulating local production.

Feasibility. Decoupling of GDP and GHG emissions in numerous countries demonstrates the feasibility, and increasing prevalence, of the energy transition from fossil fuels. Potential leakage of carbon emissions to other countries as nations move toward overseas industrial facilities overseas. The aggregate annual CO2 reduction for these 21 countries amounted to slightly more than 1 billion metric tons, while total annual global CO2 emissions grew by more than 10 billion metric tons. The world must scale up decoupling rapidly to limit average warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels in this century.

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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

  • Hammarabi

    Two words explain: Natural gas

    Countries that have been able to sustain GDP and significantly cut CO2 emissions have largely done so by decommissioning coal in favor of natural gas for electricity production.

    • Robert Pollock

      Natural gas is no solution, but it’s a temporary resting place. Watch the price of the gas sky rocket very soon. All news regarding Natural Gas in the last few years has been about disasters. Don’t they ever get it right? It’s the old guard that owns and operates the petro industry, maintaining their hooks in the game.

      • Hammarabi

        True enough. I was disappointed that the article did not explore what would happen when the low hanging fruit of converting coal to (currently cheap) natural gas had fully run its course. Once that happens, I’m not sure that emissions and GDP growth will be delinked (at least not until they start building lots more nuclear plants).

        • Calamity_Jean

          Nuclear power plants take too long to build, ten years or more. Solar farms can be done in two years, wind farms in three from proposal to power output. Renewables will win by being faster.

  • JamesWimberley

    Thanks for the link. Actually I’ve changed my mind yet again on dematerialisation – new evidence, you know. The global peaks in carbon emissions, steel, and paper all suggest an inflection.

    The Weidmann critique is that nationally- based estimates leave out the resources embedded in imports, especially from China. But if you just look at GHG emissions, these are flat in China too, so the decoupling holds.

    • nitpicker357

      I’ve heard of changing one’s mind based on new evidence, but I don’t see it happen very often. I like to believe that I can do it, but then I like to think I am handsome, witty, and well-liked by those that know me, too…

  • Ross

    A much more rapid transition of all transportation to clean energy and a huge retrofitting of buildings to improve effeciency is needed now if we’re to have any hope of keeping within carbon budgets.

    • JamesWimberley

      It’s beginning to look as if we can keep to the 2 deg C carbon budget on current (i.e. post – Paris) trends and policies. The 1.5 degree safe harbour, not so much. Another big fight ahead.

      • Robert Pollock

        I’m a Canadian living in the US. Talking with Americans about this produces a hodge podge of differing opinions, mostly based on sound bites from American news channels. My Canadian friends generally have better news sources, but the news has an unrealistic Canadian outlook to it that is extremely naive and old. Always about ten years behind the most progressive states. (About 50 years ahead of the least progressive states)
        Canadian’s are too comfortable and don’t perceive the urgency. Americans don’t care.

      • Ross

        According to Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change the 1.5 degree target is already effectively gone and was only in COP21 as a “sop to the poorer parts of the world”.

        He says the simple arithmetic of abiding by what was politically committed to in Paris requires “deep cuts in energy demand” prior to 2025 particularly in the wealthier countries. A 66% chance of avoiding 2 degrees C increase is gone. A 50% chance (requiring “war like footing”) of avoiding it is also gone. A mere 30% chance of avoiding 2 degrees C requires commitments “far beyond anything discussed in Paris”.

        • Martin

          Simple math; (my opinion) some 50 + million years ago 5 billion tons of CO 2 per year – temp increase over 100.000 year of 8-10 C.
          Current 30 billion tons CO 2 per year- temp increase in the next 100- 500 years, perhaps 10 C +.

          Will we be able on live on this planet?

  • Shane 2

    There may have been a major increase of methane emissions in the US due to fugitive emissions from the fracking industry. Methane has an extremely powerful GH effect.

    • Bob_Wallace

      EPA regs coming. They’ll have to work their way through the normal hurdles.
      Make sure the next president is also a Democrat. We don’t want to be dropping the ball now.

  • GeorgeMokray

    USA has been around 100 quads btus of annual energy production for about 15 years now. I suspect Germany and other mature industrialized nations are in similar situations and wonder whether anyone is studying what the energy plateau is for every country as it develops.

    USA also “rejects” a little over 60% of the energy it produces each year. That is another aspect of energy and carbon economy that is ripe for investigation.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Most of that rejected energy is waste heat that disappears along with thermal plants and ICEVs.


      • JamesWimberley

        Yes. For that reason, primary energy consumption is a hopeless metric during an energy revolution. Statistics agencies really need to switch to the “energy services” metric coined by LLNL, capturing the useful work done in moving things around, turning motors, heating and cooling things, lighting, etc.

        • Calamity_Jean

          “…primary energy consumption is a hopeless metric during an energy revolution.”

          Unless what you’re measuring is the energy revolution itself.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Primary energy consumption is a problematic metric during this energy revolution. We waste over half of the primary energy we use with a fossil fuel/nuclear system. Most of that wasted heat will not need to be replaced.

            The light grey part of the graphic. Don’t need most of that in the future energy system.


          • Calamity_Jean

            “We waste over half of the primary energy we use with a fossil fuel/nuclear system. Most of that wasted heat will not need to be replaced.”

            Well, that’s part of what I meant. Energy efficiency means that not only is less energy used but also that less waste heat is generated.

          • Frank

            When they measure quads, they are comparing inputs to outputs. They are not comparing the energy in the sunlight hitting the solar pannels to coal burned in the power plant. They are comparing the electricity coming out of the solar pannels to the energy in the coal. Wind, same thing.

  • Dragon

    I wonder if the report accounted for the greater greenhouse impact of methane leakage from natural gas production. Depending how much methane has leaked and how much it contributes to warming, the USA may have had a net increase in warming emissions despite a CO2 decrease:

    On the other hand, claims that natural gas profits are still 0.0% of USA’s GDP, so it wouldn’t affect decoupling, though I find it hard to believe it has so little impact on GDP.

    • Bob_Wallace

      With the EPA putting the screws to methane leaks we may see methane emissions dropping significantly over the next few years.

    • JamesWimberley

      The chart is labeled “GHG” not “CO2”, so methane is presumably in at the usual correction factor. The gas boom is a very American thing; IIRC gas use hasn’t gone up in Germany, which does not want to become any more dependent on Putin. Cameron has met stiff resistance to fracking in Britain.

  • Martin

    Interesting stats and it includes the US, one off the 3 largest emitters, other industrial counties and so called developing counties, that shows it can be done!

    What really surprises me is the US, considering their anti green politics (well by some people), that shows me that even with a number of people against it.It can be done (reducing emissions) while benefiting the economy and creating jobs.

    Now we just need the rest of the world to understand that!

    • JamesWimberley

      Who doesn’t? Everybody signed up in Paris, even Saudi Arabia. There are rearguard fights going on in a lot of places, especially Japan. But it’s fossil interests versus the people. In most countries, public opinion is more aware of the danger of climate change than in the USA (Pew).

      • Martin

        Yes even Saudi Arabia is planning fir a FF free future.
        What frustrates me is the resistance from the FF industry and the slowness of the change.

        A lot of people understand the threat, but some politicians think we need to go slow on the changes.

    • RobertM

      The US is like many places that is reducing the usage of Coal. We are retiring old Coal power plants and although some people seem to feel to the only reason to increase the use of Solar and Wind has to be done to reduce Co2 that isn’t the only reason someone would do so. Many of Solar and Wind growth is simply because it will save people money. As the price continues to drop on solar and wind more and more people will use it.

      • Martin

        Yes and add an tax on emissions and it will speed the process.

        We are putting 30 billion tons of CO 2 up each year, it will have to be reduced fast or we will be sorry rather sooner than later.

        • RobertM

          So you answer is to destroy the middle class. All Carbon taxes will do it raise the cost of power and gas on everyone. Also the increase in diesel will raise the cost of shipping so everything from food to your latest iPhone will go up in cost. That will hurt the poor and the middle class the most.

          • Martin

            I live in BC, Canada, we have had a carbon tax since 2008.

            We have the lowest personal and corporate tax rates in all of Canada, have a higher growth rate (GDP).
            Low income people get a rebate 3 or 4 times a year.
            Yes it did increase cost on a lot of things, but not that much.

            So how did that destroy our middle class?

            I agree the way our government is doing it is not perfect, but then what is?

            And my main point is we need to DO something rather faster our wise we will not have a planet to live on!

          • Ross

            It is often observed that the top 0.1% of the wealthy pay a huge percentage of total taxes. Instead we should look at the percentage of tax that they pay on their income and property in comparison with the middle class. The wealthiest shouldn’t get away with paying a lower percentage than people poorer than them.

          • Martin

            As for the wealthiest paying their fair share in taxes, did you hear about the ‘Panama Papers’ ?

            But if there is a tax on goods/fuel etc used, there is no way around a tax like that.
            Most counties have a tax like that, except in some countries you see ,in others you don’t.

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