Policy Relevance and Legitimacy

As mentioned earlier, trends in decoupling may be decomposed in a number of intermediate steps. These may include changes in the scale of the economy, consumption patterns, and economic structure, including the extent to which demand is satisfied by domestic production or by imports. Other mechanisms in the causal chain include the adoption of cleaner technology, the use of higher-quality inputs, and the post facto cleanup of pollution and treatment of waste.

Over time, these mechanisms will change for a variety of reasons. Many of them can be influenced, directly or indirectly, by sectoral and environmental policies. For example, consumer behavior can be changed through the promotion of ecolabels or the imposition of product taxes. Incentives can be provided to enterprises to undertake life cycle analyses of products. Cleaner production technologies can be promoted through measures that internalize environmental externalities and by favorable tax treatment of environmental research and development. Toxic additives in gasoline can be banned, and minimum energy performance standards can be imposed for cars or electrical appliances.

An example of the different role of these mechanisms is provided by emissions of sulfur dioxide. Indicators presented in the OECD report on decoupling (OECD 2002) show an absolute decoupling of sulfur dioxide emissions from energy production (e.g., as a result of regulations on and incentives for the use of low-sulfur fuels) in nearly all OECD countries. This decoupling partly reflects the reduction in energy use from GDP (e.g., through greater energy efficiency or shifting demand to less-energy-intensive goods and services). Another example of the role of these different mechanisms is provided by discharges of nitrogen; in the future, these could be decoupled from conventional agricultural production (aiming at less and better use of nitrogenous fertilizers) as demand shifts toward ecolabeled products or low-meat diets. Similarly, the negative environmental impacts of waste can by reduced by technologies that minimize the release of dioxins from incineration and the leaching of hazardous substances and methane from landfills; however, they can also be reduced by waste prevention policies designed to reduce the demand for waste disposal and its growth relative to GDP or total consumption.

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