The International Resource Panel notes in its report that human well-being and its improvement is based upon the availability of natural resources such as energy, materials, water and land. While economic development and population growth have led to a substantial increase in the use of natural resources, many of these are becoming less abundant and may even become critically scarce in the future. Put simply, it means we are unlikely to have sufficient natural resources to allow for all Africans to improve their lives if we keep using them at the same rate we have been using them. The dilemma of expanding economic activities while reducing the rate of resource use and reducing the environmental impact of any such use poses a serious challenge to society.
Decoupling is defined as delinking economic growth from resource use and environmental impacts. It means reducing the amount of resources such as water or fossil fuels used to produce economic growth while decreasing environmental deterioration (Fischer-Kowalski, et al., 2011). This is achieved by both making resources more productive and increasing eco-efficiency. Resource decoupling, i.e. making resources more productive, means using less material, energy, water and land for the same economic output. It alleviates the problem of scarcity and responds to the sustainability challenge of intergenerational equity by reducing the rate of physical resource depletion, while simultaneously helping to reduce costs by raising resource productivity. Impact decoupling, i.e. increasing eco-efficiency, means raising economic output while reducing negative environmental impacts that arise from the extraction and use of the required resources (such as groundwater pollution, wastes and GHG emissions). In other words, it is about using resources better, more wisely or more cleanly (Indo-German Expert Group, 2014).
Decoupling is a strategic approach for moving forward a global Green Economy – one that “results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” (UNEP).