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Decoupling growth from emissions

January 29, 2021

We need to address the cost of economic development to the environment, societies and our health when measuring human progress, says Achim Steiner of the UN Development Program.

Fire boats respond to a burning oil rig in the ocean
Oil spills: Good for growth, terrible for the environmentImage: Reuters/U.S. Coast Guard

DW: Is development inherently connected with economic growth?

Achim Steiner: That certainly has been the paradigm of the 20th century. Economic growth, gross domestic product, per capita income: those were the major variables with which we have tried to measure development, progress and success in our societies.

But it has also blocked out for far too long some very irrational elements of this measurement.

For instance, a large oil spill is very good for economic growth, because the cleanup costs a lot of money and that adds to economic GDP. But the destruction that it unleashes on communities, on nature, species, on ecosystems that do not recover, is never captured.

This is why much of the discipline of economics but also sustainable development in recent years has tried to find better ways to measure human progress. Species extinction, 7 million people who die prematurely every year, according to the World Health Organization, from indoor and outdoor pollution. That's the price of too narrow a yardstick for measuring and informing development choices.

How can human development be decoupled from environmental damage?

As always, there is neither a silver bullet nor is there a single action. But we must look at, first of all, where development can also provide an opportunity and a solution rather than compounding the problem. Clearly, decarbonization, which is moving our economies on a low-carbon trajectory into the future, and ultimately net-zero emissions, is a top priority. You can create mini-grids and actually provide people with a fundamental driver of development, which is access to power and electricity.

A man stands next to a solar mini grid in Kenya
Mini-grids can help cut carbon emissions to get to net zeroImage: Jeroen van Loon

The second area clearly has to be in the way that we also deal with our natural and ecological infrastructure: investing in nature, land restoration, stopping the destruction of, for instance, forests, but also of our river and water ecosystems.

Ultimately, we must embrace the notion that we have to include full cost accounting in our national economic statistical systems, because once the price of losing these environmental assets is actually part of a national balance sheet, very different decisions begin to emerge and much more rational investment and development pathways are ultimately self-evident.

Can the political will be generated to put these policies in place and to turn the situation around in time?

Political will is a kind of elusive currency. We can put the entire onus on political leaders — but political leaders, for instance in democracies, are bound by very short-term sentiments. And so political leaders develop their courage and commitment to act if they believe that in the public there is support for that.

So it is also up to citizens to make this part of what a politician believes is a recipe for success. In the midst of COVID-19, in many of our societies, people are saying: Look, we can't just go back to where we were before. So many political leaders, prime ministers, presidents, right now are beginning to talk in very transformative terms.

A protestor with a sign that reads: 'Dying for economic growth? War for sale'
Steiner believes citizens can make an impact on politicians: They just have to make their voices heardImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

In the classic Human Development Index Ranking, European and Anglosphere countries are disproportionately represented at the very top. But these countries also have a long history of environmental devastation in achieving that prosperity. What does that mean for countries that are seeking to improve their own state of development?

There was a century or two in which industrialization — and colonialism, let's also mention that dimension — allowed a number of countries to develop rapidly, by diminishing their own resource base and then relying on other countries' natural resources to develop their economies. There is an injustice in there that, particularly for developing nations today, is sometimes extremely challenging to accept.

But we are hitting planetary boundaries. If we cannot decouple economic growth globally from emissions, we are doomed in many ways in terms of the impacts of climate change becoming not only inevitable but irreversible.

I think what is more interesting and perhaps more encouraging is that the economy of tomorrow is clearly going to be one that is going to be more low-carbon, less polluting, more resource-efficient. And so in an economic planning sense, investing in those sectors and those technologies that allow you to be competitive in the marketplace makes perfect sense.

Just look at the disruption that is happening to the established global manufacturers of cars — most of them missed recognizing that signal. And out of nowhere, you have a company called Tesla that is now the most highly valued car manufacturing company in the world. Financial markets, they are not loyal. They will switch allegiances very quickly.

The question is how quickly can we free ourselves from the legacy in our economy of the past and actually allow the future economy to emerge.

Achim Steiner is an environmentalist who currently serves as the administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Before joining UNDP, he was Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and also served as director-general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as well as the secretary-general of the World Commission on Dams.