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The effect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions on economic growth

Is slower economic growth a cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Apparently not – at least according to two studies: one by DIW Econ, a German institute for economic research, and the other, earlier this year, by the International Energy Association (see reports below).

The IEA study found that, despite global GDP having grown by 6.4% in 2014, global emissions remained flat. The DIW Econ study found that from 2004 to 2014, OECD countries as a whole grew by 16% while cutting fossil fuel consumption by 6% and greenhouse gas emissions by 6.4%.

But what does this mean? If growth accelerated, what would happen to greenhouse gas emissions? Would they begin to rise again? Probably.

The point is that various developments, largely independent of economic growth have been reducing the greenhouse gas emissions/GDP ratio. These developments include: technological advances in energy generation; the switch to alternative fuels in many countries, thanks, in large part to lower renewable energy costs; increased energy efficiency by consumers; and a continuing move from energy-intensive manufacturing to less energy-intensive services.

So if governments forced more radical cuts in greenhouse gases, would this reduce the rate of economic growth or have no effect? For a given level of technological advancement, the initial effect would probably be a reduction in economic growth. But to the extent that this encouraged further investment in renewables and energy saving, it might even stimulate economic growth over the longer term, especially if it helped to bring lower energy prices.

A big problem in decoupling economic growth from fossil fuel usage is that developing countries, which are taking a growing share of world manufacturing, are more heavily dependent on coal than most developed countries. But even here there seems to be some hope. China, the biggest manufacturer in the developing world, is rapidly increasing its use of renewables. As the IEA press release states:

In China, 2014 saw greater generation of electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower, solar and wind, and less burning of coal.

If the world is to tackle global warming by making significant cuts in greenhouse gases, there must be a way for developing countries to continue growing while making less use of fossil fuels.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t slow global economic growth — report The Guardian, Bruce Watson (26/9/15)

Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth DIW Econ, Lars Handrich, Claudia Kemfert, Anselm Mattes, Ferdinand Pavel, Thure Traber (September 2015)
World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change International Energy Agency (June 2015)


  1. What are the possible causal relationships between cutting greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of economic growth?
  2. What incentive mechanisms can governments or other agencies adopt to encourage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without reducing economic growth?
  3. Can a cap and trade system, such as the European Emissions Trading Scheme help to achieve a given level of emissions reduction at minimum cost to economic growth? Explain.
  4. How might the developed world support developing countries in moving to a low carbon technology?
  5. What factors lie behind the falling costs of renewable energy? Are these the same factors that lie behind the falling cost of oil?
  6. What political problems might hinder the greater production of renewable energy?
  7. How might an economist set about determining a socially optimal amount of fossil fuel production? What conceptual and philosophical problems might there be in agreeing what is meant by a social optimum?
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