Decoupling population change and economic activity from environmental harm


If managed well, drivers such as population change and economic activity can benefit sustainable development, particularly through technological and institutional innovation, and changes in human behaviour. Successive SoE reports have, however, highlighted the challenge of reconciling the longer-term perspective of environmental policies with the relatively short-term focus of economic and social policies.

SoE 2011 recognised that the effects of drivers are mediated by processes including the policies, culture and technology that we bring to bear on our use of our environment. It noted:

Economic growth will probably include increased demand for energy and other resources, as well as increased waste generation, with all the accompanying environmental implications for resource development, emissions and waste disposal. Alternatively, economic growth may be largely decoupled from increased consumption of resources and increased waste. Improvements in the efficiency of resource use have led to a weakening of the link between economic growth and energy use over recent decades.

The term ‘relative decoupling’ is used to describe the situation when the growth rate of an environmental parameter is lower than the growth rate of the economic indicator. The term ‘absolute decoupling’ is used to describe a decline in resource use, irrespective of the growth rate of the economic driver (UNEP 2011, ABS 2016b).

There is considerable academic debate about whether population change and economic growth can be decoupled from growth in material and energy use in the long term (see, for example, Ward et al. 2016).

Achievements to date

SoE 2011 considered the extent to which Australia’s growing population and economy increased demand on resources and produced more waste, and the associated implications for the environment. It found that there was some evidence of relative decoupling of economic growth from energy and water use during recent decades.

SoE 2016 finds that relative decoupling is being achieved through improvements in the efficiency of resource use, an increase in the proportion of renewable energy generated from Australia’s abundant supply of solar and wind energy, and—according to the International Renewable Energy Agency—the declining costs of producing renewable energy (IRENA 2015). A shift in the Australian economy towards less energy-intensive sectors such as the services sector (e.g. health, education, finance, tourism) and changes in human behaviour in terms of energy use have also contributed to relative decoupling.

Evidence shows that some indicators of environmental pressure are increasing at a relatively lower rate than the economic indicator of gross value added (GVA) (ABS 2016c; Figure DRV1). The Australian Environmental–Economic Accounts show that Australia’s economic production rose 73 per cent from 1996–97 to 2013–14, as measured by GVA in chain volume terms. During the same period, indicators of environmental pressure related to energy consumption increased 31 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions increased 20 per cent, which is lower than the rate of increase in GVA (relative decoupling). In contrast, indicators for waste production rose 163 per cent, considerably more than the increase in GVA during the same period (ABS 2016c).

In a recent report on the implications of Australian population and economic growth for environmental sustainability, Bond et al. noted:

... aggregate measures of ecosystem vitality and environmental health and indicators related to water use, nutrient balance, carbon monoxide, volatile organic carbons, and protected areas have been strongly decoupled from economic growth and show improving trends over the past several decades. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides have only been weakly decoupled, in that intensity per unit output has decreased, but not enough to offset economic scale effects. Indicators of biodiversity as viewed by subject matter experts conflict with the optimistic view suggested by increases in protected areas. Carbon dioxide emissions have stabilised and slightly declined since 2008, suggesting that the relationship between economic growth and greenhouse gases may have reached a turning point, while solid waste has not been decoupled. (Bond et al. 2015)

Approaches to decoupling

Continued growth in Australia’s population and economy is likely to increase pressures on the Australian environment. Although there are ongoing efforts to improve economic productivity at the same time as reducing the relative intensity of use of the environment, achieving long-term sustainability requires that the use of the environment is kept within biophysical limits.

The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 recognises the importance of promoting ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources. One of the principles of sustainable development is that the present generation should ensure that the health, diversity and productivity of the environment are maintained or enhanced for the benefit of future generations.

On a global scale, the issue of sustainable development has been on the agenda for decades. In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (including the Australian Government) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which cut across disciplines, sectors and institutional mandates.1A healthy environment, social development, and sustained and inclusive economic growth are all essential for achievement of each goal.

Individuals, businesses and communities are applying a range of innovative approaches that may lead to further decoupling of economic activity from environmental impact. For example, efforts to reduce food wastage in cities, recycling, step changes in energy-efficient technologies, and the growing use of digital technologies all suggest that there are ongoing opportunities for Australia to further develop and apply innovative approaches to the economy that sustain the environment.

Accelerating technological change and connectivity are providing significant opportunities and potential to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment and reliance on nonrenewable natural resources, while improving lifestyles, and stimulating innovation and ‘green growth’; green growth ensures that natural capital is sustained as a core part of economic growth strategies and actions (EEA 2015). The pace of technological change—particularly in the fields of information and communication, and nanotechnologies and biotechnologies—is unprecedented. Emerging new technologies, including cost-efficient renewable energy, mobile communication and big data, are facilitating collaborative and effective solutions.

Technological advances in the capture, collation and analysis of environmental information are also rapidly changing how we access and use information to support evidence-based decision-making.

Australia’s population growth and economic wellbeing have also contributed to an expansion of citizen science since 2011. Citizen science is becoming an indispensable part of improving the effectiveness of environmental management. An example of citizen science is the Reef Life Survey, which brings together scientists, managers and citizen scientists to monitor shallow reef biodiversity in nearly 90 locations.

Providing access to data that are comparable, comprehensive, reliable, re-usable, aggregated and timely has the potential to lead to better decisions, more cost-effective management, and better implementation and integration of policies.

Jackson WJ (2016). Drivers: Decoupling population change and economic activity from environmental harm. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b659517ce65