Economic Growth in the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Critical Analysis

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Institutionen för geovetenskaper


This study examines how economic growth is framed in the UN post-2015 development agenda, which is centered on the Sustainable Development Goals. It uses a transdisciplinary approach combining Ecological Economics and Critical Theory. Through a qualitative content analysis of nine official documents from different work streams in the post-2015 process, the thesis seeks to answer what the goal of ‘sustained, inclusive, and sustainable’ growth actually means, how it relates to the aim of transformative change which is central to the agenda, and how the agenda addresses the relationship between growth and the environment. The results show that there is a strong consensus to maintain and increase growth levels, while changing the quality of growth to make it more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. Thus, the agenda reinforces the ‘sustainable development’ concept which has been established over the last three decades as the mainstream approach to international environmental governance. No limits to growth are recognized; poverty reduction and greater equality are to be achieved mainly by aiming for higher growth rates in developing countries than developed ones. It is acknowledged that the GDP metric has many shortcomings and needs to be revised to better account for externalities and complemented by alternative measures of welfare and well-being. However, no existing alternative measures are used in the SDGs. The goal is to develop better ones by 2030, which effectively postpones the necessary shift away from GDP. The documents express a strong belief in ‘green growth’ (the decoupling of growth from material resource use and emissions), but this optimism seems to be unfounded since the documents fail to account for several aspects that are crucial to determining the feasibility of green growth. Most notably, there appears to be no evidence of absolute decoupling ever having occurred. At the same time, the scale of decoupling that is required appears to be physically impossible to achieve. Since the agenda does not question growth dependency at all, and fails to distinguish between the intrinsic and instrumental value of GDP growth, my conclusion is that it does not fulfill the promise of transformative change.

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