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A study co-led by Prof. Olivier Delbard among employees of the German Environment Agency shows scepticism that ‘green’ growth policies such as the European Green Deal can solve environmental problems, and growth-critical concepts to be more effective.

‘Green growth’, a-growth, ‘post-growth’ and ‘degrowth’ are prominent concepts on the role of economic growth for achieving environmental sustainability. Most political approaches rely on the strategy of green growth in order to make the economy more climate-friendly and sustainable. But as a new study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production shows, environmental experts are critical of this concept, which aims at further economic growth. A survey of employees of the Umweltbundesamt (UBA) - Germany's central environmental authority - showed that the experts consider growth-critical concepts to be more effective.

The authors of the study - Cathérine Lehmann and Steffen Lange from the Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung (Institute for Ecological Economy Research, or IÖW) and ESCP Business School professor Olivier Delbard - see the findings as support for an environmental policy that goes beyond growth. “Our results further support previous empirical findings that a large share of people and, in particular, specialists are in favour of growth-critical concepts, making policy-options towards such concepts more feasible,” explains Olivier Delbard. “It was particularly interesting to work with the IÖW because it has been one the key players on sustainability-related issues in Germany for quite a long time. Interestingly enough, the starting point was the thesis written by Cathérine Lehmann, then my student in the MSc in International Sustainability Management. Her sample was so relevant and significant that we decided to develop an academic paper based on her initial work.”

A majority of respondents are critical of growth

“When asked to choose which strategy they find most suitable to solve environmental problems, three quarters of the respondents chose economic concepts that do not focus on growth. Only a quarter opted for green growth,” adds Cathérine Lehmann. The picture is even clearer for other questions that implicitly surveyed agreement via statements on economic growth and environmental concerns: almost 99 percent of the environmental experts surveyed agreed with more growth-critical viewpoints overall.

“Green growth relies on decoupling emissions and resource consumption from economic growth so that the environment is relieved,” comments economist Steffen Lange. “Whether this will happen and be sufficient, however, is highly controversial.” Alternative concepts have therefore long been discussed. The degrowth approach, for example, argues that a sustainability transformation that meets the ecological challenges would be accompanied by a significant reduction in gross domestic product per capita (GDP) in wealthy countries. A middle position between green growth and degrowth is a-growth. This approach assumes that it is not possible to predict in advance whether GDP will rise or fall, and that the growth concept itself should be abandoned and replaced by a comprehensive set of economic, social and environmental indicators on wellbeing, resilience and sustainability.

The more expertise on growth concepts, the more critical of growth

The respondents also rated as very good the ‘precautionary post-growth position’, which was developed in 2018 by the IÖW with the RWI - Leibniz Institute for Economic Research and the Wuppertal Institute. Against the background of the great uncertainty of the possibility surrounding the possibility of a far-reaching decoupling of economic growth and environmental impacts, it aims at the fact that societal systems should be designed to be (more) growth-independent.

“According to our survey, staff at the Federal Environment Agency consider approaches such as degrowth, a-growth or the precautionary post-growth position to be more suitable for solving environmental problems than relying on further growth,” adds Lehmann. “Our survey shows that this view is even particularly strong among experts with greater expertise on the growth concepts mentioned. Many respondents thus seem to be rather sceptical that green growth policies such as the European Green Deal will lead to the necessary decoupling of resource use and growth.”