Industrial factory belching smoke

+ Decoupling relies on pursuing economic growth while reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and use of resources.

There’s not a nation on Earth where the drive for increased economic growth isn’t still the dominant political shtick. And there’s not a nation on Earth that isn’t signed up (theoretically, at least) to the scientific consensus that we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that the average temperature increase by the end of the century stays below 2°C.

We’ve all heard of cognitive dissonance – the ability to hold two or more contradictory ideas at the same time. The paragraph above falls into a new category of Meta Cognitive Dissonance: the ability on the part of nation states to subscribe to two totally contradictory ‘big ideas’ in order to keep alive that even bigger idea of ‘progress’ as we’ve known it since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The only way of managing (but not, I fear, eliminating) Meta Cognitive Dissonance is to pursue the goal of decoupling with total dedication – as if (to pinch a phrase from Jimmy Carter) it’s the “moral equivalent of war”: continue to pursue economic growth, but with a progressively reducing environmental externality in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases and use of resources.

That makes decoupling the single most important word in today’s political lexicon – which is a bit of a problem as probably no more than a few hundred thousand people actually know what it means!

So is your decoupling glass half-full or half-empty? Here’s how the half-full lobby sees it: innovation in every field of energy, transport, water, waste, land use and manufacturing is consistently delivering ‘more for less’ every year. For instance, global emissions of CO2 were still up in 2012 (by 1.4%), but the global economy grew by 3.5%. Decoupling at work. Even in China, carbon intensity (a measure of CO2 emitted for each dollar of GDP) fell by a mighty 4.3%.

And here’s the half empty lobby: that’s all well and good, but still hopelessly inadequate. China’s 2012 CO2 emissions still increased by a massive 300 million tonnes (despite the 4.3% efficiency gain), representing around three-quarters of the total global increase for that year.

All I can say, having just got back from the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, is that it’s OK to keep our glasses topped-up for the time being. The wealth of new decoupling technology on display was mind-boggling. Even Abu Dhabi itself (one of the most profligate of all nations in terms of per capita energy and water use) is now starting to think seriously about decoupling in terms of its three great energy and resource guzzlers: desalination, air conditioning and construction. And lots of decoupling synergies are kicking in: for instance, I spoke with three small companies pioneering building-integrated concentrated photovoltaics combined with co-generated heat, for use in air conditioning or more much efficient desalination.

But I suspect nobody knows better than Arup’s engineers that it’s not technology that’s the problem: it’s the politics and the finance. And even my glass-half-full approach in The World We Made has to be tempered by extreme caution on that front!