Breaking up is decreasingly hard to do

Decoupling_sparkline_graphic_v2A common concern of developed and developing countries has been that breaking up the 19th and 20th century association of economic development and fossil fuels will lead to GDP decline.  Referred to as “decoupling,” economists have warned that economic growth would decline as climate change policy made carbon more expensive.

But last year the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the global economy grew without increasing CO2 emissions — for two years in a row.

Now, new research from the World Resources Institute (WRI) delves more deeply into the country level dynamic.  According to WRI, 21 countries have decoupled their economic growth from carbon emissions since 2000.  More specifically, GDP has risen in these countries while carbon pollution has declined over the past 15 years, resulting in about a billion tons of lowered emissions.

Countries on the list are mostly EU members who, as parties to the Kyoto Protocol, legally bound themselves to reduce GHG emissions during the first (2008-12) and second (2013-2020) commitment periods.  The more well known examples of France, Germany, Sweden, and the UK are complemented by the less obvious contributions of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia.  Non-EU member but Kyoto Protocol signatory Switzerland also makes the list, as do Ukraine and Uzbekistan.  Notably, the U.S. figures among these 21 countries who have decoupled economic growth from CO2 emissions — the only major economy not to join the Kyoto Protocol.

The WRI notes that no “single formula, policy or demographic trend” has brought about this GDP-GHG decoupling.  Some of these countries have used policies to tax carbon or rapidly scale up renewable energy, while others have experienced shifts in their economies away from emissions-intensive industries.  More than 90% reduced the industrial sector share of their economies (which means that there’s potential for “leakage” of these emissions to other developing/industrializing countries not on this list).

For more detailed analysis at the country level, read here.