ECONOMIC GROWTH AND CARBON EMISSIONS: "DECOUPLING"
More recently, though, we've learned that the link between economic growth and emissions isn't as ironclad as it once seemed. Plenty of countries have managed to get richer at the same time they've reduced their carbon footprint, a process known as "decoupling": Sweden, for example, decoupled its growth from emissions way back in the mid-1990s, so this isn't exactly a cutting-edge concept. Economy/Emissions decoupling appears to have manifested at the global level, too, with a recent report from the International Energy Agency finding that carbon emissions held steady from 2013 to 2014 while the global economy grew by 3 percent.
ECONOMIC GROWTH AND VEHICLE-MILES TRAVELED: DECOUPLING?
Consider the following graph, which shows changes to real GDP and vehicle-miles traveled over the past 45 years:
The next graph compares GDP to VMT, subtracting annual growth (%) of VMT from GDP for each year since 1970. (For example, in 1992 U.S. GDP grew by 3.5 percent and VMT grew by a little over 2.5 percent, so the difference is right around 1 percent—that is, GDP grew by 1 percent more than VMT in that year.) This helps illustrate the connection between the two measures, and over the past 45 years it shows a pretty clear trend toward economic growth being less and less dependent on driving.
There's significant variability from year to year, but while in the past it was common for VMT growth to exceed GDP growth (i.e., the difference between the two falls into negative territory in the above graph), it's happening with much less frequency today. Not only has GDP been growing faster than vehicle miles in recent years, the average difference between the two has also grown. The decoupling of economic growth and driving became painfully apparent immediately before and in the years since the Great Recession, but what this data shows is that this disconnect has been progressing, albeit slowly, for decades.
If the past several decades have taught us anything, it's that just because things worked one way for a long time doesn't mean they'll work that way forever. Increasing productivity used to mean growing wages, and that's no longer the case—at least for now. On the more positive side, technological and societal changes mean that economic growth is no longer as dependent on pumping carbon into the atmosphere and spending more and more time sitting behind the wheels of our cars.
Unfortunately, while our elected and appointed leaders are decrying the disconnect between productivity and wages, and celebrating the decoupling of economic growth and carbon emissions, most have yet to accept the fundamental shift in the role of transportation in our lives and in our economy. Organizations like the Federal Highway Administration are still married to an outmoded view that more roads mean more driving, and more driving means a stronger economy. They're right about the first part, at least.
We need them to understand that the world they knew is gone. That it's entirely possible to build a more robust economy without doubling down on additional road investments—road investments that so often fail to recognize the moral, social, environmental, and economic value of less car-dependent, human-scale cities and towns. The economic justification that "more roads equals more growth" is no longer tenable because it's no longer true, and transportation departments at every level of government need to come to terms with that new reality and adjust their priorities accordingly.
Better Institutions 24-08-2015