Decoupling and Dematerialization of the Economy

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Definition

The MEFA (Material and Energy Flow Analysis) framework provides a tool to monitor progress in terms of the decoupling (disconnection or separation) of economic and social well-being from the use of biophysical resources. Decoupling may occur in at least three relations: (1) economic growth— e.g. as measured by GDP growth—may be decoupled from material and energy throughput (an increase in "efficiency" leading to "dematerialization"), (2) material and energy throughput may be decoupled from social well-being ("sufficiency"), and (3) social well-being may be decoupled from economic growth ("equity") (Haberl et al. 2004). This is shown in the model below.

Decoupling.gif
Figure1 : Interrelations of material and energy flows, economic growth, and social well-being.

(Source: Modification of Fischer- Kowalski and Haberl (1998), taken from Haberl et al. 2004)

Observed Patterns

According to Haberl et al. (2004) studies on the relation between economic growth and national material throughput reveal three patterns: (1) "No decoupling;" i.e., material throughput increased faster or as fast as GDP, as was the case for Greece in the past two decades (see Eurostat, 2002) (2) "Relative decoupling," a situation where the amount of material or energy needed to produce $1 of GDP declines over time – this be observed in many countries (see Eurostat, 2002; Fischer- Kowalski and Amann, 2001; Schandl et al., 1999) and (3)"Absolute decoupling" in the sense that the aggregate materials and energy throughput of an economy declines over time while GDP continues to grow has taken place in a few industrial economies such as Germany or The Netherlands (Eurostat, 2002) although in this (and the other cases) the trade patterns must be taken into account. For instance, production of material-intensive raw materials and products can be outsourced through trade.

References

  • Eurostat, 2002. Material use in the European Union 1980–2000: Indicators and analysis. Luxembourg, Eurostat, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.
  • Haberl, H., M. Fischer-Kowalski, F. Krausmann, H. Weisz, V. Winiwarter (2004): Progress towards sustainability? What the conceptual framework of material and energy flow accounting (MEFA) can offer. Land Use Policy 21(3), pp. 199-213.
  • Schandl, H., Hüttler, W., Payer, H. (1999): Delinking of economic growth and materials turnover. Innovation—The European Journal of Social Sciences 12 (1), pp. 31–45.
  • Fischer-Kowalski, M., Amann, C. (2001): Beyond IPAT and Kuznets curves: globalization as a vital factor in analyzing the environmental impact of socio-economic metabolism. Population and Environment 23 (1), pp. 7–47.
  • Fischer-Kowalski, M., Haberl, H. (1998): Sustainable development: socio-economic metabolism and colonization of nature. International Social Science Journal 50 (4), 573–587(1), pp. 1–8.