Economic Decoupling

Doing More With Less


We may not realise it but when we replaced 100 W filament light bulbs for 11W long life bulbs or LEDs to produce the same amount of light we were decoupling. No sensible house owner or factory manager would dream of consuming more electricity than was needed to meet the same objectives. And yet increasing resource intensity is an aim of some MDAs. For example, to increase mobility – which is the consumption of transport infrastructure equipment and energy – is considered to be a worthy aim, irrespective of economic performance.

Concept of decoupling

This feature explores the concept of decoupling to determine how it might influence Botswana. The concept of decoupling was first explained by the UN Environment Programme in 2011, driven by the prospect of declining natural resources and increases in economic growth. Clearly such a scenario is unsustainable. The concept went further to declare wellbeing and happiness were more important than economic growth. The concept of decoupling is differentiated into breaking the link between economic growth and resource use (resource decoupling), and the link between economic growth and environmental pressure (environmental decoupling) (see Figure below).

The graphic explains the principle – the top curve is wellbeing – that should carry on improving. Wellbeing may be measured by the UNDPs Human Development Index and also the World Happiness Index. The next curve is economic growth which is the rate of change of GDP that needs to increase but not at the expense of well-being. The third curve is resource consumption which must not increase faster than GDP. Economic intensity is a measure of the amount of a resource to produce a unit of GDP.


Striking a delicate balance

In Botswana, a pioneering movement is underway to strike a delicate balance between wellness, economic growth, resource consumption, and environmental impact. Guided by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) framework, this African nation is redefining development through the principles of “Resource Decoupling.” This feature explores how Botswana is aligning its journey with UNEP’s vision, backed by key performance indicators (KPIs) for wellness, economic growth, resource consumption, and environmental impact.


Botswana’s commitment to wellness goes beyond traditional economic growth metrics. By investing in healthcare, education, and social infrastructure, the nation is fostering a higher quality of life for its citizens. Key indicators that measure wellness include the UN human development index, life expectancy and also the World Happiness Index The average HDI value for Botswana during that period was 0.627 points with a minimum of 0.294 points in 1970 and a maximum of 0.735 points in 2020 while life expectancy increased from 53 to 70 years over the same period. This shows a very positive trend, but how does is relate to changes in the economy?

Economic indicators 

Economic growth is a fundamental goal for Botswana’s development. Possibly the best economic indicators are per capita GDP which is the national income divided by population. In 1970 was just $160 rising to $7,735 currently. It reflects the country’s huge progress economically – even more than the wellbeing of the citizenry. However, Botswana acknowledges that growth should not come at the expense of the environment, aligning with UNEP’s call for harmonizing economic and environmental goals. Botswana’s resource consumption is a crucial aspect of its sustainable journey. The Resource Consumption Index measures the flow of materials used in the economy.

Botswana’s resource decoupling

As Botswana moves towards resource decoupling, reducing while achieving economic growth becomes a vital indicator of success. Domestic material consumption DMC is a measurement of the total amount of material directly used in an economy, excluding hidden flows. Material flows and resource productivity indicators are central to monitoring the changing patterns of resource use as global economies grow. They are essential for monitoring progress towards SDG targets 8.4 ‘Resource Productivity’ and 12.2 ‘Sustainable Use of Natural Resources’. Sustainable utilization of natural resources is the proper management of natural resources for the benefit of the entire human community. The main aim of sustainable development is to provide resources for present generations without compromising the needs of future generations. UNEP contributes to SDG 12.2, “achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”, by strengthening and communicating the knowledge and scientific base for resource efficiency and SCP. No evidence has been found of SCPs in Botswana from online sources and there appears to be no DMC indicators. Botswana’s pursuit of resource decoupling is evident through practical initiatives. For instance, the transition to low-wattage, long-life lighting systems directly contributes to energy efficiency, reducing resource consumption. The solar energy movement further bolsters green growth, aligning with UNEP’s call for renewable energy adoption. UNEP’s framework emphasizes the need to break the link between economic growth and environmental harm. More must be done to recycle single use resources.


UNEP Environmental Performance Impact assessment is carried out annually covering forty different parameters ranging from biodiversity quality to waste recycling. Botswana has scored well in many categories and is currently ranked 35th out of 180 countries, with an aggregate score of 54/100 up from 46/100 ten years ago. Where Botswana’s EPI has worsened is in CO2 emissions growth rate 10/100 ranked 142/180 and black carbon usage which have scored 44/100 and ranked 152/180 countries. Clearly economic growth in Botswana has not been green, it remains one of the carbonised countries in the world and much can be done to raise the bar. The UNEP 2011 report has been an influential cornerstone of Botswana’s journey. Its call for resource decoupling, resonating with the nation’s values, has influenced policies and decisions across sectors.

Balance between progress and conservation

Botswana’s alignment with UNEP’s framework demonstrates that economic progress and environmental well-being can coexist. Botswana’s transformation offers a roadmap for the entire continent. As nations seek to harmonize growth and environmental preservation, they can learn from Botswana’s example. The nation stands as living proof that a balance between progress and conservation is attainable. Individuals can play a pivotal role by adopting energy-efficient practices, supporting local initiatives, and advocating for sustainable policies. By aligning personal choices with Botswana’s journey, each person contributes to the collective effort of achieving sustainable prosperity. Decoupling should be apparent in the manifestos of progressive political parties in the run-up to the 2024 election and something that the youth vote will be looking closely at.


Botswana’s pursuit of sustainable development, framed by UNEP’s wellness, economic growth, resource consumption, and environmental impact indicators, is a testament to the nation’s commitment. As it progresses towards resource decoupling, Botswana illuminates a path where wellness and growth can flourish in harmony. Through de-intensification and green growth initiatives, Botswana sets a standard that resonates with UNEP’s vision for a balanced and thriving future. Reversing the black carbon and CO2 growth rate as well as reducing acidification and pesticides while improving the management of nitrogen should receive close attention. The journey is ongoing, but the message is clear: by embracing UNEP’s framework, Botswana could apply decoupling more extensively and showcase how a nation can transform its trajectory while preserving the planet for generations to come.