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Can Economic Growth really be Decoupled from Increased Carbon Emissions in Least Developed Countries? Ethiopia’s Story

Steve Baines - 16th March 2017
Can Economic Growth really be Decoupled from Increased Carbon Emissions in Least

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Steve Baines explores the possibility that all good things really can go together.

These are definitely not the research findings I expected to be presenting. The data in front of me has challenged some of my long-held assumptions.

Climate negotiations through the years show us one thing very clearly – that Least Developed Countries demand the right to develop their own economies and build their own prosperity for their people. They are not prepared to accept underdevelopment under the guise of ‘carbon responsibility’.

So the question becomes whether Least Developed Countries can deliver these improved living standards for their citizens without causing the environmental damage historically inflicted through growth in the West…or to put it another way …Can LDCs “leapfrog” dirty technology and move straight to green solutions? Does prosperity always automatically come with a carbon price tag? Evidence of any form of “absolute” decoupling (where growth goes up and emissions go down) is very thin on the ground. “History provides little support for the plausibility of decoupling” says Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth.

Well Tim, we now have early, tentative evidence that such “decoupling” is indeed possible in practice. This is Ethiopia’s story.

Ethiopia’s Commitment

We all think we know about Ethiopia – the familiar headlines – famine, drought, refugees. Right now that old stereotype is back in the news: Ethiopia is in the midst of a severe drought crisis, and according to the latest figures, 5.6 million people need food and still more need water, Ironically this suffering is likely to be more severe because of climate change.

Ironic because Ethiopia is a big and complicated place, and other, remarkable, progress is being made, including on climate change:  In 2010 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi committed Ethiopia to two amazing joint goals: To become a Middle Income nation by 2025 and to do this by 2030 without a single additional gram of Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) from 2010 levels.

These commitments were set out in Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy 2010. The context is not promising. One third of Ethiopia’s people currently live on less than $1.25 a day, so the strategy commits Ethiopia to raising real incomes per person 3.3 times over 15 years (measured by Gross National Income per capita). Also by the end of this target period there will be over half as many people again in the country. All without increasing emissions.

Surely this is madness – I thought as I flew into Addis Ababa in July 2016. For my research, I used World Bank statistics of Population, Gross National Income (GNI) and GHG emission, alongside CRGE commitments to calculate how much more carbon-efficient Ethiopia’s Technology would need to become to meet its targets.

Using World Bank figures on Population growth and Ethiopian commitments to Middle Income status and carbon neutrality it is possible to calculate that “Technology” in Ethiopia needs to become more carbon-efficient by a factor of over 4.5 times (2010- 2030) if CRGE goals are to be met.

I also compared this level of Technological (leapfrogging) carbon efficiency gains to that achieved by other nations at times of strong economic growth. Using the same methodology, between 1999 and 2012 none of the 6 other countries surveyed (2 OECD countries, 2 BRICS countries and 2 other developing countries) were able to rise to the challenge of decoupling on this scale.

So has Ethiopia got a track record of achievement to back up its ambitious commitments? Using the World Bank datasets I looked back at Ethiopia’s recent performance and also talked to key players in Government and civil society.

Here are the killer figures – Between 1999 and 2012:

  • Population increased 43%,
  • National affluence (GNI) increased 242%
  • But GHG emissions actually decreased by around 15% (see graph). After taking population growth into account, per capita emissions went down over 40%.

These results blew me away. They demonstrate that Ethiopia has the track record to meet their twin targets if they can just stay on the same trajectory.

Ethiopia GHG

How has Ethiopia achieved this? …by making its institutions ready for change. The study looked in depth at the capacity of Ethiopia to benefit from climate finance and then focused in on some landmark case studies in investment into “green growth” initiatives – the rollout of a national programme of “Eco Industrial Parks”, securing international private investment in construction of a major geothermal plant and ongoing efforts to enhance the take-up of “New Improved Cook Stoves” across the country.


So where has all of this got us? Ethiopia’s achievements may constitute a small, tentative, fragile message of hope. If we believe World Bank figures, at very early stage development Ethiopia has decoupled absolute GHG emissions from economic growth.

Critical questions remain: fruitful areas for new research. In particular – How have the benefits of this green economic growth been distributed among the people? If growth can indeed be green and the results of growth be equitably shared to relieve poverty, then we really have a development model which is worth replicating. “Win-win” solutions for the planet and the people.

Perhaps it will prove harder to sustain once low hanging fruit and easy wins have been banked….or just possibly Ethiopia has forged a new route for Sustainable Development – a model for other LDCs to follow.

The study was undertaken in partnership with Oxfam GB, the Environment & Climate Research Centre in Addis Ababa, UNDP’s Ethiopia office and the University of Birmingham.



This post first appeared on Duncan Green's from Poverty to Power blog.

Photo credit: mariusz kluzniak via / CC BY-NC-ND