A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: Synthesizing the insights

Helmut Haberl, Dominik Wiedenhofer, Doris Virág, Gerald Kalt, Barbara Plank, Paul Brockway, Tomer Fishman, Daniel Hausknost, Fridolin Krausmann, Bartholomaüs Leon-Gruchalski, Andreas Mayer, Melanie Pichler, Anke Schaffartzik, Tânia Sousa, Jan Streeck, Felix Creutzig

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleResearchpeer-review

197 Citations (Scopus)


Strategies toward ambitious climate targets usually rely on the concept of 'decoupling'; that is, they aim at promoting economic growth while reducing the use of natural resources and GHG emissions. GDP growth coinciding with absolute reductions in emissions or resource use is denoted as 'absolute decoupling', as opposed to 'relative decoupling', where resource use or emissions increase less so than does GDP. Based on the bibliometric mapping in part I (Wiedenhofer et al, 2020 Environ. Res. Lett. 15 063002), we synthesize the evidence emerging from the selected 835 peer-reviewed articles. We evaluate empirical studies of decoupling related to final/useful energy, exergy, use of material resources, as well as CO2 and total GHG emissions. We find that relative decoupling is frequent for material use as well as GHG and CO2 emissions but not for useful exergy, a quality-based measure of energy use. Primary energy can be decoupled from GDP largely to the extent to which the conversion of primary energy to useful exergy is improved. Examples of absolute long-term decoupling are rare, but recently some industrialized countries have decoupled GDP from both production- A nd, weaklier, consumption-based CO2 emissions. We analyze policies or strategies in the decoupling literature by classifying them into three groups: (1) Green growth, if sufficient reductions of resource use or emissions were deemed possible without altering the growth trajectory. (2) Degrowth, if reductions of resource use or emissions were given priority over GDP growth. (3) Others, e.g. if the role of energy for GDP growth was analyzed without reference to climate change mitigation. We conclude that large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and GHG emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates, hence decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets. More research is needed on interdependencies between wellbeing, resources and emissions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number065003
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


  • decoupling
  • degrowth
  • economic growth
  • energy
  • exergy
  • GHG emissions
  • material flow


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