Literally, the term refers to the act of eliminating interrelationships. Decoupling is the separation of two things, or conditions or even ideas that have been linked. We can decouple railroad cars or people (also called divorce).
In the environmental field the term has come to be applied to conditions that need to be separated in order to protect the planet. For instance, there has been a fairly direct relationship between economic growth and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The more fossil fuels used in a growing economy, the higher the level of GHG emissions. To prevent climate change, then, there needs to be a lowering of emissions at the same time the economy grows. In effect, we need to decouple economic growth and environmental harm. If renewable energy is used to replace fossil fuels as an energy source for economic development, then we get a decoupling of GHG emissions and growth. Use of other natural resources generally also requires a decoupling from economic growth, or we will run out of these resources.
Another example is where energy utilities receive income only from the sale of energy. The two — more energy use and higher income — are coupled and discourages the implementation of energy efficiency measures by energy companies. They need to be decoupled so efficiency is valued as much as, or more than, energy use.
It is important to distinguish between “relative” and “absolute” decoupling. With “relative” decoupling, the environmental harm lessens relative to the economic growth. For instance, if the economy grows by 25% but the environmental harm increases only by 5%, it can be said that there is a relative, or somewhat of a, decoupling. If the economy grows at whatever level and there is no increase in environmental harm, then an absolute decoupling has occurred.
Some further ideas to explore on Decoupling:
Should developing countries be required to decouple economic growth and environmental harm to the same extent as developed countries? Who decides this question?
Look further at the work of Tim Jackson on values, lifestyles, environment and economy, including decoupling.
Identify a natural resource in your area that is under stress from some economic activity, then see if you can figure out a way to decouple that activity and stress.
Merriam-Webster, “decouple.” www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decouple
United Nations Environment Programme, Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/50244/publications/Decoupling_Factsheet_English.pdf
Tan Copsey Interview with Tim Jackson, “Restoring the balance,” china dialogue (23 Feb 2011). www.chinadialogue.net/article/4124-Restoring-the-balance
The OECD Environment Programme, Indicators to Measure Decoupling of Environmental Pressure from Economic Growth www.oecd.org/environment/indicators-modelling-outlooks/1933638.pdf