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Published: 2020-12-17

How to combine economic growth with climate sustainability

NEWS New project searches for policies that will reduce emissions without harming the economy.

Text: Elin Andersson

Can greenhouse gas emissions be reduced without stopping economic growth? And, if so, how might the “decoupling” of growth from emissions be achieved? These questions are the heart of a new research project starting at Umeå University in 2021, entitled “In Search of Decoupling: (How) Can We Combine Climate Sustainability with Economic Growth, Good Jobs, and Public Preferences?” The project, which also includes researchers in Switzerland and Canada, was recently awarded 11 508 000 SEK by the Swedish Research Council (VR).

Malcolm Fairbrother, Professor of Sociology, will lead the project. He emphasizes that some countries, including Sweden, have succeeded in substantially reducing emissions, even while growing their economies. But many other countries have not, and researchers around the world disagree about what this means.
- Whether economic growth inevitably increases greenhouse gas emissions may be the most contentious issue within the climate research and environmental communities. Some climate researchers and environmental advocates are optimistic about opportunities for “green growth” and new jobs in less polluting industries; others reject that emissions can be sustainably “decoupled” from growth. This open question is one important reason why governments have been far too slow in addressing the challenge of climate change. Given the world’s urgent need for better climate policies, the project aims to identify ways of reconciling human flourishing with environmental sustainability.

The researchers will study the relationship between growth and emissions in three ways:

  1. First, they will investigate past changes in countries’ greenhouse gas emissions, comparing across sources like transportation and electricity generation. Using newly available data, the researchers will test statistically whether emissions have declined faster in countries where public opinion demanded it, and where fewer workers were employed in carbon-intensive industries.
  2. Second, the project will examine the cases of countries that have most successfully decoupled economic growth from various sources of emissions. This part of the project will identify public policies that have worked to achieve these reductions, and strategies that have made those policies economically, politically, and socially feasible.
  3. Third, the researchers will survey the general public in several countries, and investigate what laypeople perceive to be different policies’ consequences for economic growth and employment. These beliefs likely shape public opinion about climate policies, but they may not match the actual track records of existing policies.

In Search of Decoupling: (How) Can We Combine Climate Sustainability with Economic Growth, Good Jobs, and Public Preferences? is financed by the Swedish Research Council 2021-2025. Learn more about the project.

Research team

Ingemar Johansson Sevä
Associate professor
Joakim Kulin
Associate professor

External project members

Aya Kachi
Associate Professor, University of Basel, Switzerland

Katya Rhodes
Assistant Professor, University of Victoria, Canada