The European Green Deal: Conformity to Business-as-usual?
Andreas Paikert is a student of the College of Europe Mário Soares Promotion. His specialisation in economic governance and climate change policy has led him to explore to what extent the European Union can be expected to be successful in creating synergies between the two. In this explicative article,
he evaluates the European Green Deal in light of its conformity to business-as-usual.
As one of the European Commission's six priorities for 2019-24, the European Green Deal “is Europe's new growth strategy”. Its ambitions are to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050 while ensuring that economic growth is decoupled from resource use and that no person or place is left behind.
The European Green Deal is a green growth strategy. As such it wants to distinguish itself through its initiative towards radical sustainability. However, although the Deal is still in its infancy, it is shaping up to extensively conform itself to the business-as-usual policy-making trends that have plagued the fight against environmental degradation around the world. To understand why this is the case we need to take a critical look at the Green Deal's ambitions, specifically at the decoupling of economic growth from resource use.
What is decoupling?
When two variables are coupled, one drives the other. In this case economic growth drives resource use. As our economies grow, we demand more, consume more and produce more, which uses an increasing amount of resources. When we speak of decoupling, we are looking to disassociate these variables from one another. While there are many variations of how decoupling can occur (global vs. local, temporary vs. permanent, sufficient vs. insufficient), the most important distinction to be made is between relative and absolute decoupling. Relative decoupling would mean that economic growth still drives resource use, but not at the same rate. While absolute decoupling would mean experiencing economic growth without increased resource use. In other words, relative decoupling results from increased efficiency and absolute decoupling requires a complete severance of economic growth's reliance on resource use.
The European Green Deal does not specify what kind of decoupling it aims to achieve, but we need to
assume that the European Commission is aware of the existing differences and that it aspires to
achieve absolute decoupling as the viability of green growth depends on it.
Here is the problem. As it stands, the literature is clear: empirical evidence on decoupling is thin and does not support “the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown”. Additionally, it appears that such decoupling is unlikely to happen in the future and thus - as a major political endeavour - constitutes a large risk to our future by perpetuating the unsustainable status quo and simultaneously feigning progress.
A recent publication of the European Environmental Bureau gives insight on why decoupling is unrealistic by laying out 7 barriers to green growth: cost shifting, insufficient and inappropriate technological change, limited potential of recycling, underestimated impact of services, problem shifting, rebound effects, and rising energy expenditures. The report stresses that individually, these barriers cast doubt on the possibility for sufficient decoupling and thus the feasibility of green growth; but that put together, render the feasibility of green growth “highly compromised, if not
This brings up the question of where to go from here. We have a brand new and grand European sustainability initiative and its base assumption is flawed. This is where the same literature gives us answers. It is time to advocate a shift from efficiency to sufficiency. It is time to consider and adopt
“conceptualisations of [the] economy that do not rely on economic growth”. It is time to focus on another kind of decoupling. Instead of decoupling economic growth from environmental pressure, we need to decouple the idea of a “good life” from economic growth.
 Tere Vadén, Ville Lähde, Antti Majava, Paavo Järvensivu, Tero Toivanen, Emma Hakala, Jussi Eronen, “Decoupling for ecological sustainability: A categorisation and review of research literature.” Environmental Science & Policy 112, no. 6 (2020): 243.
 Timothée Parrique, Jonathan Barth, François Briens, Christian Kerschner, Alejo Kraus-Polk, Anna Kuokkanen, Joachim H. Spangenberg. Decoupling Debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth as a sole strategy for sustainability. (Brussels: European Environmental Bureau, 2019), 3.
 Parrique et al., Decoupling Debunked.
 Parrique et al., Decoupling Debunked, 55.
 Vadén et al., “Decoupling for ecological sustainability,” 243.
 Parrique et al., Decoupling Debunked, 59.