Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels


By Jan Mayrhofer

Last year, the European Union committed to fostering sustainable growth and development and tackling climate change. The proposed new framework for the EU’s development policy recognises the linkages between both issues, but the EU must be more innovative to fight the injustices of climate change.

When the Paris climate deal was struck in December 2015, EU countries played an important role in the commitment to limiting global warming. Just a few months earlier, the international community had agreed on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Goal 13: “Taking Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change”.

The proposal for a new European Consensus on Development recognizes the close link between climate change and development by putting emphasis on “protecting the environment, managing natural resources and tackling climate change”. In order to achieve these goals, the European Commission seeks to “decouple economic growth from environmental degradation”, a concept known as ‘green growth’.

The ‘decoupling’ approach

Whether or not sustainable economic growth is possible hinges on the concepts of relative and absolute decoupling of economic growth from natural resource use. Relative decoupling means that both gross domestic product (GDP) and green-house gas emissions grow, but the GDP grows faster. But given that we are already living beyond our planetary boundaries, what is needed is a rapid move to absolute decoupling, where the GDP grows while green-house gas emissions fall in absolute terms.

In Europe, this is precisely what has happened in the period from 1990 to 2012 where, according to research by the European Environment Agency, green-house gas emissions declined by 19% despite a 45% expansion of economic output. Critics, however, respond that emissions have merely been outsourced to the global South. With consumption, rather than production, taken as a yardstick, research finds that achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even non-existent.

Putting inequality in the equation

The disparity in these research findings alludes to the global inequality and injustice of climate change, which is not recognized in the Commission proposal. Oxfam has estimated that the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions, while the richest 10% are responsible for around 50% of global emissions attributed to individual consumption.

Yet it is the poorest communities that are disproportionately suffering the impacts of climate change. They tend not only to depend most on natural resources for their livelihoods, but also tend to live in places most affected by climate change, further exacerbating economic inequality.

It has even been found for upper middle-income and high-income economies that per-capita emissions are higher when income inequality is high. In other words: if inequality in the EU can be reduced, this can also facilitate reductions in emissions. Clearly, equity and sustainability are twin-challenges that have to be tackled together.

Fighting the injustice of climate change requires innovative solutions

Oxfam welcomes the importance given to the protection of the planet and the implementation of the Paris Agreement in the proposed new Consensus, which also highlights the need for “a responsible private sector and the application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle”. This principle must also apply to its member states that should supplement aid budgets to support climate adaptation and mitigation abroad and speed up real emissions reductions of energy at home.

Decoupling growth from emissions is absolutely necessary, but the approach put forward by the European Commission does not go far enough to meet the Paris climate goals. In an age of ecological overshoot, the only sustainable pathway to poverty alleviation is through the redistribution of wealth and power.

The new Consensus must articulate a visionary development policy that acknowledges that economic growth, inequality and climate change are inextricably linked and moves beyond the GDP to embrace alternative yardsticks to measure human progress. These new indicators should reflect both environmental externalities and how income and wealth are distributed to support the shift to an economy that works for everyone, including future generations – an economy for the 99%.


This is the last blog in a series analysing the details of the proposed review of the European Consensus on Development. Read all our stories on the EU’s new development framework.

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