Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth

In the next series of my sustainability blogs, I am going to speak about the growth of countries’ economies while their use of resources is declining (‘decoupling’).

We are currently using unsustainable amounts of the Earth’s natural resources. “Decoupling” involves allowing economies to grow without this being directly dependent on the quantity of resources used (‘doing more with less’). Decoupling is seen as a necessary objective if sustainable development is to be achieved. 

If you look to the rapid economic and population growth of the 20th century, it was closely linked to substantial increases in the extraction and consumption of natural resources. This growth was also not evenly distributed, with growth in richer countries often translating into negative environmental and economic impacts in developing countries.

Decoupling takes two forms: resource decoupling and impact decoupling. Resource decoupling means reducing the rate of use of resources per unit of economic activity. Impact decoupling means maintaining economic output while reducing its negative environmental impacts.

Globally, economic growth has gradually shifted towards a rate that outstrips that of resource consumption. Additionally, some negative environmental impacts have reduced. So, it seems that some ‘dematerialization’ of the world economy has occurred naturally.

However, one of the key challenges to achieving sustainable development is how this can be accelerated. In order to find ways of doing this, it is important to understand the challenges. These include:

  • Understanding resource flows and their associated contribution to environmental issues such as climate change.
  • Policymakers (and the general public) need to be shown the physical limits to the quantities of natural resources available for human use on this planet – how can this be communicated in a way that ensures something is done about it?
  • How can investments in innovations and technologies which accelerate decoupling be rapidly generated?
  • Decoupling requires increasing the useful value that can be obtained from a quantity of resource – higher ‘resource productivity’. Can regulatory interventions be developed to help this?

In order to overcome these challenges and accelerate decoupling across the world, significant changes in government policies, corporate behaviour, and consumption patterns by the public are needed. These changes will not be easy.

Let us start with innovations for more sustainable resource use.

National governments commonly operate programmes to promote industrial innovation. Historically, these programmes have been solely geared towards promoting economic growth without any consideration on their environmental and social side-effects. Carlos Montalvo, a strategic analysist, has had previous research within sustainable innovation, evaluation & impact assessment and behavioural models in innovation systems. He suggested that a new concept of innovation is required that takes the environmental and social effects into account (Montalvo, 2008).

Eco-innovation is a new concept.

Eco-innovation requires that innovation goes hand-in-hand with improving resource productivity and enhancing environmental quality. It is defined by OECD (2009) as:

the creation or implementation of new, or significantly improved, products (goods and services), processes, marketing methods, organizational structures and institutional arrangements which – with or without intent – lead to environmental improvements compared to relevant alternatives”

In the Civil Engineering sector, there has been an increased interest in ‘smart buildings’ and smart cities that minimise environmental impacts, from the design stage to the end of a building’s operational life. Minimising the materials we use begins in the design stage. Components of a building need to be designed to contain as little material as possible. In some cases it may even be possible to completely eliminate certain components from the design.

Next, we need to look at trade and the distribution of resources and environmental burdens.

Everything we have today comes from natural resources. These materials are not readily available to us: they are harvested, mined, and extracted. All of these activities require energy, meaning that each manufactured product has an energy requirement – ‘embodied energy’ – before it is even delivered, processed, or used.

Then it is shipped and distributed across the world which inflicts further environmental burdens through the release of fossil fuels during transport.

There has been a tendency towards countries specialising in certain areas of production, allowing them to become efficient in these activities. However, this prevents them from being self-sufficient, meaning that they are required to trade with other nations to obtain everything that they need. This has had both positive and negative implications for developing countries. Despite these concerns, international trade can make an important contribution to global decoupling when guided by appropriate policies on environment and trade.

There are 3 key policy principles that could support decoupling:

  1. Exploiting transport and physical or geological potentials in a way that minimizes negative environmental impacts;
  2. trade negotiations could consider the full impact of the commodities being traded, agreeing prices that incorporate environmental factors and social costs that are currently considered ‘externalities’
  3. trade agreements between countries whose economies are based on exporting primary resources could be accompanied by side agreements that assist these countries in diversifying their economies in ways that support decoupling.

To Conclude…

In summary, resource and impact decoupling are already taking place, though at a rate that is insufficient to achieve sustainable and fair societies anytime soon.

Far greater efforts will be required in the coming years to accelerate decoupling. There will be resistance through policy makers and maybe even consumer, however, it is in everyone’s interest to support decoupling and minimise the environmental impacts we are making.

Reference: This blog has sourced and summarised the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Resource Panel’s report on Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth along with other sources.

Written by:

Hi! I am in 5th year of University studying Civil Engineering. I hope to talk about life in Univeristy and outwith your studies to make the most of your time here!

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