ZCA explainer series: green growth vs. degrowth vs. a-growth

Next in our explainer series, we explain the difference between the green growth, degrowth, and a-growth agendas, and outline some of their supporting arguments.
October 11, 2023

Green growth

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Green growth means fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies”.[i]

Promoting green growth relies on the idea of ‘decoupling’ which is where economic growth, measured in GDP, is increased whilst natural resource use and greenhouse gas emissions are decreased. ‘Absolute decoupling’ is GDP growth with absolute reductions in emissions or resource use. ‘Relative decoupling’ is when emissions or resource use increase, but to a lesser extent than GDP.[ii] ‘Sufficient decoupling’ is when GDP increases and negative environmental impacts reduce to a point that is compatible with stringent environmental targets such as limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.[iii] Furthermore, decoupling can be divided depending on whether you are talking about resource use or emissions. ‘Resource decoupling’ focuses on the levels of energy and matter used, whilst ‘impact decoupling’ focuses on the levels of pollution, including carbon emissions.[iv] As you can see in figure 1 below, the environmental indicator used to see if decoupling is taking place can either be production-based or consumption-based. It is important to understand these different decoupling terms because research studies on different kinds of decoupling yield different results.

In a two-part article published in 2020, Haberl et al. synthesised the results of 835 empirical studies on the relationship between economic growth, resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.[v] They found that production-based relative decoupling is frequent. However, absolute decoupling is rare. It never happens on a global level and only appears to happen in periods of low GDP growth. Additionally, consumption-based decoupling studies tend to show that when there is a decline of production-based indicators (i.e., those related to gross impacts like CO2 emissions within an economy) this is compensated by increases in global footprints. However, there are some studies that show absolute (but not sufficient) decoupling between GDP and carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions in some countries.[vi]


Figure 1: Countries that have decoupled their GDP from their emissions

Source: Our World in Data


The graphs show that the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and Finland have managed to decouple their GDP from their carbon dioxide emissions.

Businesses can also decouple their growth from carbon emissions. For example, all Telefónica Group companies are committed to a move “towards a carbon-free company, de-coupling the growth of our business from emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG)”.[vii] According to Bain & Company, circularity is the key to decoupling business growth from resource consumption, but this requires senior executives to escape their linear mindsets.[viii] Green growth is strongly supported by policymakers and international institutions such as the World Bank, the European Union, and the OECD.[ix] However, within high-income countries there is a growing body of scientific research that questions whether green growth is possible or desirable.[x]


Degrowth is part of the post-growth paradigm. Degrowth began as an economic theory in the 1970s but became a strong movement in the early 2000s as awareness of climate change has grown.[xi] The idea is to reduce the consumption of resources and energy by shrinking our economies. Not only will this reduce negative environmental impacts, but it is argued to also reduce inequality and improve human wellbeing.[xii] 

Whilst degrowth is often likened to recession, it is not the same phenomenon. Recessions are unplanned and undiscriminating in the economic activity that they reduce. They result in mass unemployment, worsen inequality, and lead to austerity measures.  During a recession, governments typically abandon ecological objectives in order to restart economic growth. Jason Hickel, one of the leading degrowth scholars of today claims that this is the opposite of degrowth. Degrowth is planned. Degrowth reduces ecologically destructive economic activity whilst expanding the healthcare, education, and care sectors, and other universal public goods like housing and transportation. Degrowth introduces policies to prevent unemployment and introduces other policies to reduce it. Degrowth seeks to distribute income more equally. Finally, degrowth is part of a plan for a rapid green transition.[xiii]

A key degrowth argument is that just because there is evidence for absolute decoupling of emissions from GDP, that does not mean that sufficient decoupling is possible.[xiv] Essentially, we cannot decouple fast enough to prevent 2°C of warming above pre-industrial levels from happening. The level of decoupling that we need may not be technologically or economically viable. Hickel and Kallis published a seminal degrowth article in 2020. They said that if GDP were to grow at 2.1% per year, then decoupling would need to occur at 9.6% per year to hit the 1.5°C target or 6.4% for the 2°C target.[xv] They then used the C-Roads simulator to see how much decoupling could feasibly occur. C-Roads was developed by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative. It allows you to test simple climate policy scenarios. Under the most aggressive abatement policies which include high subsidies for renewables and nuclear power, and high taxes on coal, oil and gas, decoupling was only shown to occur at 4%.[xvi] This is significantly lower than is needed to hit international climate targets. 

A question often raised about degrowth is how it would affect the Global South. When looking at cumulative CO2 emission in excess of the planetary boundary of 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration, the Global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions, and yet it is the Global South that is suffering disproportionately from the effects of climate change.[xvii] We previously mentioned how Africa alone contributes to less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but is already facing severe impacts stemming from climate change. 50% of the Global North’s total consumption relies on net appropriation of resources from the rest of the world.[xviii] Many countries in the Global South need resource and energy consumption in order to ‘develop’ and meet human needs. Crucially, degrowth theory is not universally applied, it specifically calls for high-income countries to degrow because it focuses on excess resource and energy use.[xix]


A-growth is another strand of post-growth thinking. A-growth argues that we should not base progress on GDP alone because it is inadequate at reflecting societal wellbeing.[xx] It also argues that economic growth can lead to positive or negative outcomes for environmental and social goals, and therefore policymakers should be neutral about growth. Policymakers should instead focus on implementing environmental policies that improve both environmental and social goals. Recently published research by King et al. (2023) shows that a-growth is the dominantly held position on the growth-versus-environment debate amongst climate policy researchers, with 44.8% of respondents holding an a-growth view. However, support for a-growth largely depends on where in the world these climate policy researchers are based. Non-OECD and BRICS researchers are more in favour of green growth at 56.7% and 57.9% respectively.[xxi]



[i] OECD- What is green growth and how can it help deliver sustainable development?

[ii] Haberl et al.- A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights

[iii] Warlenius- The limits to degrowth: Economic and climatic consequences of pessimist assumptions on decoupling

[iv] Ibid

[v] Haberl et al.- A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Telefónica, S.A.- Telefónica Global Environmental Policy

[viii] Bain & Company- Strategy in a Circular World

[ix] King, Savin and Drews- Shades of green growth scepticism among climate policy researchers

[x] Ibid

[xi] World Economic Forum- Degrowth- what’s behind the economic theory and why does it matter right now?

[xii] Hickel- What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Warlenius- The limits to degrowth: Economic and climatic consequences of pessimist assumptions on decoupling

[xv] Hickel and Kallis- Is green growth possible?

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Hickel- Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary

[xviii] Hickel- What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification

[xix] Ibid

[xx] King, Savin and Drews- Shades of green growth scepticism among climate policy researchers

[xxi] Ibid

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Gemma Drake
Research Analyst

Gemma recently graduated with a degree in International Development. She is currently studying for an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism, which examines urban planning and urban design through a sustainability lens. “I’m passionate about addressing sustainability challenges in a holistic and pragmatic way. Zero Carbon Academy's diverse range of services targets many of the areas that need support if we are to transition to a liveable future. I’m excited to see the impact that the Academy makes.”

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