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Is Green Growth possible?

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Dr Jason Hickel (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Prof Giorgos Kallis (ICTA, Autonomous University of Barcelona) have published a paper titled “Is Green Growth Possible?” in the journal New Political Economy. The paper examines green growth theory as articulated in major reports by the World Bank, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the UN Environment Programme, and tests the theory against extant empirical evidence and models of the relationship between GDP and both material footprint and CO2 emissions, dismissing this way green growth policies to deal with ecological emergency.

Green growth is a term to describe a path of economic growth that uses natural resources in a sustainable manner. It is an alternative concept to typical industrial economic growth. Therefore, it means fostering economic growth and development, while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies. This paper, as indicated in the title, asks if this kind of economic growth is possible.

For material footprint, the question pertains to whether we can achieve absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use. Our findings are: (1) empirical projections show no absolute decoupling at a global scale, even under highly optimistic conditions; (2) while some models show that it may be achieved in high-income nations under highly optimistic (and indeed unrealistic) conditions, this cannot be sustained in the long-term given limits to efficiency improvements.

These results assume existing levels of GDP growth, of around 2-3% per year. It may be feasible to achieve absolute reductions in resource use with GDP growing at less than 1% per year. However, to achieve reductions rapid enough to get us down to safe thresholds will require degrowth strategies.

For CO2 emissions, the question pertains to whether we can reduce emissions fast enough to stay within the carbon budgets for 1.5 ºC or 2 ºC, as per the Paris Agreement. Our findings are: (1) emissions reductions in line with 2 ºC are only feasible if global GDP growth slows to less than 0.5%; and (2) reductions for 1.5 ºC are only feasible in a degrowth scenario. These results hold even under optimist policy conditions, with high taxes on carbon and fast rates of technological innovation.

In other words, while we need all the government policy interventions and technological innovation we can get, any successful attempt to achieve adequate emissions reductions will require that we scale down aggregate energy demand.

In light of these results, we conclude that green growth theory lacks empirical support. Indeed, the evidence opens up questions about the legitimacy of World Bank and OECD efforts to promote green growth as a route out of ecological emergency. Any policy programs that rely on green growth assumptions – such as the Sustainable Development Goals – need urgently to be revisited.

Giorgos Kallis
Universitat Autònma de Barcelona


Jason Hickel & Giorgos Kallis. (2019). Is Green Growth Possible?. New Political Economy. DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964.

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