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Policy Review on Decoupling

Development of indicators to assess decoupling of economic development and environmental pressure in the EU-25 and AC-3 countries.

Looptijd 2004  -  2005
Contact Ester van der Voet
Financiering European Commission


This study has been conducted within the framework of the EU Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources (Resource Strategy), which is currently in development. The objective of the Resource Strategy is described in the 6th Environmental Action Programme as: "ensuring that the consumption of resources and their associated impacts do not exceed the carrying capacity of the environment and breaking the linkages between economic growth and resource use". The question that is the subject of this study is how to measure decoupling and how to monitor progress on the decoupling road. For monitoring, indicators or measurements are required that encompass the abovementioned characteristics: these indicators should be applicable at the (supra)national level, they should indicate a total level of environmental impacts, related to the use of materials or resources, and should enable creating time series in order to monitor progress. 

In earlier studies, the Domestic Material Consumption over GDP (DMC/€) has been put forward as such an indicator. DMC measures the material resources which are directly consumed within a national economy and are put forward as indicators, however indirect, for environmental pressure. The reasoning behind this is that in the end each kilogram of material entering an economy has to come out at some moment as waste or emissions. 

While this is undoubtedly true, it is at the same time true that there are large differences in environmental impacts between different resources or materials. A kilogram of sand does not have equal impacts as a kilogram of copper, or meat, or coal. The potential environmental impacts of the different materials or resources should be considered as well as the weight or volume of their use. In the end, it is the environmental pressures and impacts respectively which should be decoupled from economic growth, not their use per se. In this study, we attempted to develop an indicator combining information on material flows with information on environmental impacts. This indicator we called EMC, Environmentally weighted Material Consumption. In addition, a first attempt was made to define an indicator for land use at the same basis, i.e. to be used as a measure for decoupling. These indicators are applied for the 25 EU countries and 3 Candidate countries. Time series are made for the former EU-15 countries from 1990 - 2000, and for the newly accessed and candidate countries from 1992 - 2000. The results are compared with the DMC for the same countries and time period. This sheds some light on the discussion with respect to the extent to which the DMC indeed can be regarded as a proxy for environmental pressure. 

Next to indicator development, this study focuses on explaining these indicators. Both for the DMC and the EMC explanatory variables were defined and tested. Policies affecting material flows have been identified and an assessment has been made of their influence. Moreover, correlations were made between DMC and EMC. In this way, we hope to shed some light on the reasons for differences between countries for both variables, as well as on the debate over the usefulness of DMC as an indicator for environmental pressure.