The grand decoupling. For most of history, economic expansion has come with a side of carbon dioxide – you wanna grow, you gotta have chimneys pointing to the sky. But more recently, according to the World Resources Institute, there has been a grand decoupling. The bonus graph to the left, which you can click for a larger version, shows what they mean. Since the mid-2000s, the United States’ emissions have been coming down, but its real-terms GDP is higher than ever.
We’re one of the 21. What about the United Kingdom? We are, apparently, one of 20 countries, aside from the US, to have experienced a similar decoupling. Our emissions decreased by 20 per cent between 2000 and 2014, but our real GDP grew by 27 per cent. That sort of ratio is beaten only by a handful of Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine with its 29 and 49 per cent scores.
How it’s happened. The chart at the top of this post shows just how the UK’s emissions have come down since the longer-ago year of 1990. Back then, we were pumping out what equated to 797 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Now it’s closer to 514 million tonnes. The largest part of this reduction has come from the electricity generation sector, but increased recycling and the decline in manufacturing (depicted in another bonus graph, to the right) have meant lower emissions from the waste management and industrial process sectors too. These three sectors accounted for half of our emissions in 1990; they’ve made up 75 per cent of the reduction since then.
What about cars? By comparison, little has been done by the transport sector. Its emissions have declined by just 3 per cent since 1990, despite successive governments imposing heavier and heavier taxes on road fuel to – they suggest – wean us off the stuff. Is this attributable to the over 10 million extra vehicles on the road between then and now? Will improvements in fuel efficiency result in a faster decline in emissions? Will the rise of electric cars mean a faster decline still? Or, as Bjorn Lomborg argues in this persuasive video, are electric cars not as green as they’re cracked up to be?
Unavoidable question marks. Questions, question, questions – that’s how it is at this intersection of atmosphere and economy. It’s hard to tell what’s due to policy, what’s due to technological invention, and what’s simply due to inevitable changes in how we do business. But, whether you’re an environmentalist hippie or not, it’s still worth knowing and speculating about these things. They will, after all, be on our politicians’ minds for some time to come.