The Roads to Decoupling: 21 Countries Are Reducing Carbon Emissions While Growing GDP

Posted on April 08, 2016
Posted By: Nate Aden
As countries embark on the transition to a new climate economy, there’s a debate about whether growth can drive, or even coexist with, climate stabilization. On the other side of the coin, it’s also a discussion of whether climate stabilization can drive growth. 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 (GHG) 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 United States is the largest country to experience multiple consecutive years in which economic growth has been “decoupled” from growth in carbon dioxide emissions. From 2010 to 2012, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 6 percent (from 5.58 to 5.23 billion metric tons), while GDP grew by 4 percent (from $14.8 to $15.4 trillion). In its analysis of the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that moving to a cleaner electricity system after 2020 would bring about a sustained period of GDP-GHG decoupling. As illustrated in the figure below, CPP implementation is expected to reduce total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by a further 6 percent between 2020 and 2025, while GDP increases by 13 percent in real terms over the same period.


If the United States implements the Clean Power Plan and achieves sustained decoupling, it will be in good company. Twenty other countries achieved decoupling of GDP and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions over the period from 2000 to 2014.

The UK is an example of a country where economic growth and CO2 emissions have increasingly diverged. Between 2000 and 2014, the UK achieved six years of absolute decoupling where real GDP grew at the same time that carbon dioxide emissions declined. Over the 14-year period, emissions dropped from 591 to 470 million metric tons of energy-related CO2, while GDP grew from $2.1 to $2.7 trillion (constant 2005 U.S. dollars).

How Have Countries Decoupled?

There is not a single formula, policy or demographic trend that’s driven GDP-GHG decoupling across all countries. Sweden, for example, implemented ambitious policies including carbon taxes that supported its decoupling. Denmark’s rapid increase in renewable energy reduced emissions while stimulating local production.  Another key factor in many countries is a structural shift of the economy away from emissions-intensive industry. (See table with detailed illustration of those numbers here.)

More than 90 percent of the countries that decoupled GDP and GHG emissions between 2000 and 2014 reduced the industrial sector share of their economies. However, the exceptional cases of Bulgaria and Uzbekistan demonstrate that GDP-GHG decoupling is also feasible in countries with expanding industrial activity (not to mention Switzerland and the Czech Republic, where the industrial portion of GDP remained essentially steady). Across the 21-country group, the average change in the industry share of GDP was a 3 percent reduction over the period, with an average CO2 reduction of 15 percent.

Shifting to a Low-Carbon Path

Decoupling of GDP and GHG emissions in numerous countries demonstrates the feasibility, and increasing prevalence, of the transition to cleaner modes of economic activity. These country-level decouplings are driving the global trend toward decoupling in 2014 and 2015. Beyond the aggregate trends described here, more information is needed on the potential leakage of carbon emissions to other countries as nations move their industries overseas, factors that enable sustained and absolute decoupling, and what’s needed to support larger-scale emissions mitigation.

Over the 14-year period covered here, the aggregate annual CO2 reduction for these 21 countries amounted to slightly more than 1 billion metric tons. Given that total annual global carbon dioxide emissions grew by more than 10 billion metric tons over this period, it’s clear that decoupling needs to be scaled up rapidly to have any chance of limiting average warming this century to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the current international target for preventing the worst impacts of climate change. As countries focus on implementing the Paris Agreement, decoupling presents one option to address global climate challenges while preserving economic security.


This article reprinted with permission of WRI. See the original on their website here. 


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April, 08 2016

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Some interesting observations but one needs to exercise caution when looking at this data. For example, one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions is steel making. A large portion of US and European steel making has been moved to India and China (both notably absent from the above list) so if the means by which these reductions have occurred is by shifting production to other countries then all one has accomplished is to make the "numbers" look good for Europe and the USA while increasing those numbers for China India and other nations. A second comment that I would make is that you are considering that CO2 is the only greenhouse gas. It is not. Methane is considered a far greater contributor to GHG than CO2 (about 25 X so I am told be the experts). In the USA coal is being systematically replaced with cheap and abundant US natural gas. The result is lower CO2 emissions but HIGHER methane emissions. Since you only need 1/25 the emissions of methane to produce the same effect as the CO2 emissions it replaced I suggest that on balance we are actually worse off than the above data suggests.

The west has systematically moved most of its high polluting production to Asia and the Far East which has the effect of making the Wests numbers look politically good while making those of China and India much worse.

The only common denominator is the Earth's atmosphere which receives the CO2 and Methane irrespective of which nation produced it.

One needs to look at the world as a whole not selected countires to gain a true picture of what is really occurring. And that picture does not look nearly as good as the picture painted above.

Bottom line is we are still burning vast amounts of fossil fuel at an ever increasing rate. Coal consumption may be flatlining but natural gas use is sky rocketting for power generation purposes.

April, 11 2016

Richard Vesel says

Good article! Thanks for this insight into the successes of many countries in reducing carbon output.

Malcolm, I agree with your posits on the shifting of heavy industry (steel, and even more so, CEMENT) to China and India. Those countries would do best to glean from the examples set by Bulgaria and Uzbekistan, for starters.

On coal v. methane: Yes methane, pound for pound is 20+ times worse of a GHG, but we are not replacing coal CO2 lb for lb with methane. Here's a little math to clear up the picture.

One ton of coal produces 2 tons of CO2 (more or less, based on coal quality), or 4000 lbs. Energy replacement of one ton of coal requires about 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Natural gas leakages are estimated to be on the order of 1%, so in this case 200 cubic feet of leakage. By weight, this is about 0.05 lbs per cubic foot, so the energy comparable leakage weight is 200 x 0.05 = 10 lbs.

Story not done yet...

For power generation, the CO2 emitted by burning gas, v. coal, is nominally 50% less per MWhr generated*. So the difference between coal-firing and gas firing is a net reduction of about 2000lbs CO2. The increase in greenhouse effect by the methane leakage is the 10lb figure times the "amplification" factor of 20 for methane v. CO2, or 200lbs CO2 equivalent. So, we're 2000 lbs to the good on the reduction side, and 200lb-eq to the bad on the methane leakage side.

In other words, methane leakage rates would have to be 10% or more for gas replacing coal to be a net "bad thing". (I think all regulations for wells in NA are trying to get average leakages to below 1%, but that has to be verified.)

*40% reduction if you use the gas to fire a steam boiler, and up to 70% reduction if you use gas to fire a combined cycle gas turbine station. So I use an estimated 50% reduction overall. It is probably more reduction than that in reality.

Regards, RWV

April, 11 2016

Richard Vesel says

And also agree with we are STILL burning lots of fossil fuel, and that must come to an eventual end by mid-century, period.


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