Skip to Main content

Decoupling of the economy

Decoupling, also referred to as dematerialisation of the economy, refers to the disconnection or separation of economic and social well-being from the use of biophysical resources. According to the MEFA (Material and Energy Flow Analysis) framework, decoupling may occur in at least three relations: (1) economic growth – as measured by GDP growth – may be decoupled from material and energy throughput (an increase in ‘efficiency’ leading to ‘dematerialisation’); (2) material and energy throughput, decoupled from social well-being (‘sufficiency’); and (3) social well-being, as it becomes decoupled from economic growth (‘equity’) (Haberl et al., 2004). This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Three relations of decoupling (Adapted from Kowalski and Haberl 1997)

According to Haberl et al. (2004), studies on the relation between economic growth and national material throughput reveal three patterns: (1) ‘no decoupling’; i.e. material throughput increased faster or as fast as GDP (see Eurostat, 2002); (2) ‘relative decoupling’, a situation where the amount of material or energy needed to produce USD1 of GDP declines over time – this be observed in many countries (see Eurostat, 2002; Fischer-Kowalski and Amann, 2001; Schandl et al., 1999); and (3) ‘absolute decoupling’ in the sense that the aggregate materials and energy throughput of an economy declines over time while GDP continues to grow. This has taken place in a few industrial economies such as Germany or the Netherlands (Eurostat, 2002), although trade patterns must be taken into account, because decoupling may be the result of outsourcing production of raw materials or energy-intensive production.


Eurostat (2002) Material use in the European Union 1980–2000: Indicators and analysis, Luxembourg, Eurostat, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Fischer-Kowalski, M., and Amann, C. (2001) Beyond IPAT and Kuznets curves: globalization as a vital factor in analyzing the environmental impact of socioeconomic metabolism. Population and Environment 23 (1) 7-47.

Haberl, H., Fischer-Kowalski, M., Krausmann, F., Weisz, H. and Winiwarter, V. (2004) Progress towards sustainability? What the conceptual framework of material and energy flow accounting (MEFA) can offer, Land Use Policy 21(3) 199-213.

Schandl, H., Hüttler, W., Payer, H. (1999) Delinking of economic growth and materials turnover. Innovation-The European Journal of Social Sciences 12 (1) 31–45.

For further reading:

Fischer-Kowalski, M., Haberl, H. (1998) Sustainable development: socio-economic metabolism and colonization of nature. International Social Science Journal 50 (158) 573–587.

This glossary entry is based on contributions by Willi Haas, Simron Jit Singh and Annabella Musel

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos