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Decoupling in the Nordics – Is economic growth compatible with a sustainable future?


Green growth forms the core of sustainable development strategies in the Nordic countries, the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world. The central assumption is that economic growth can continue while reducing resource use, environmental pressures, and impacts. In other words, resource use and environmental pressures can be absolutely decoupled from growth, so we can halt climate change and biodiversity loss without adversely affecting economic growth. However, it is unclear whether absolute decoupling is possible long-term. In 2021 the Nordic Council of Ministers published the report Is Economic Growth Compatible with a Sustainable Nordic Future? - written by Norion Consult. The report assesses, evaluates, and questions arguments and evidence for and against decoupling as a realistic long-term solution to rapidly approaching environmental crises, aiming to raise awareness amongst Nordic policymakers and others about critical issues and uncertainties in the green growth concept. In 2023 a conference was held to continue this vital discussion; various stakeholders attended and engaged in the debate.

The four speakers at the conference provided key insights into the discussion on decoupling.

  • Daniel Montalvo from the EEA gave examples of policies that have led to a significant change in the past and summarised our current political efforts to address the climate and biodiversity crisis.
  • Bjørn Bauer from Norion Consult presented the essential findings and concepts from the 2021 report and concluded that evidence of absolute decoupling is limited, especially for material resource use. 
  • Mikael Malmaeus analysed how we use the term ‘growth’, what we mean by it, and some of the key arguments used in the discussion on green growth.
  • Outi Haanperä from Sitra presented a study showing how it can reach the 1.5°C target in theory if we phase out coal now, implement CCS, and switch to electrification on a large scale globally.

Key takeaways

  • There are few examples of achieving absolute decoupling and almost none for decoupling material footprints. We are currently seeing a recoupling of GDP and material use because production is moved to countries with less efficient production.
  • The decoupling analysis provides a more accurate picture if it takes a Footprint-based perspective instead of a territorial-based perspective on our emissions and material resource use.
  • We need to better account for rebound effects; the risk of rebound effects is rarely included in climate action plans, although it can offset achieved goals.
  • It isn't easy to envision our life and economy in a society that stays within planetary boundaries. We need to create holistic narratives that provide a vision. What will a community built on services or sufficiency look like for individuals and the economy?
  • Instead of incremental change, we need a paradigm shift to tackle the crises in time.
  • We need strong policies, for instance, a tax on materials or a cap on resource use and/or emissions.
  • We have previously seen rapid responses in the face of other crises, such as the COVID pandemic.
  • We need to consider what we measure, what the purpose is, and consider additional parameters to GDP.

Recommendations for further action

  • Stimulate a debate in politics and wider society about sufficiency, what the concept entails, and what can be considered sufficiency in a Nordic context.
  • Create visions of future pathways towards sustainability that allow people to imagine their life under different scenarios that support a sustainable transition in our society.
  • Commence a study identifying policy tools that can support sufficient change.
  • Stimulate debate on which mechanisms lie behind the growth imperative and how these mechanisms might be tackled without causing societal instability.
  • Analyse the underlying mechanisms that previously have led to successfully handling great crises.