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Decoupled or recoupled African cities: green industrialisation and sustainability

Industrialisation is picking up from low to higher levels in Africa (Omilola, 2014) and other developing countries and the majority is concentrated in cities (Vollrath et. al., 2016). Beyond industry, African cities are reservoir of continental wealth politico-administratively and economically – faced with urban sustainability challenges though, which green industrialisation professes better future. Adopting green industrialisation to promote urban development in African cities is tightly compatible to the goals and targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Human development challenges are unprecedentedly increasing along the densely populated coastal cities. The cluster issues of pollution, wood-cutting, bush-burning, carbon emissions and fragmented biodiversity are rising. Generally, ‘gender inequality also remains pervasive’ and this is certainly not absent in African cities (Clark, 2016). The urbanisation ills are compounded by rural–urban migration and job opportunities that go with urbanization (HDR, 2015:67). Most developing cities ‘have specific problems of poverty, slum up-grading, solid waste management, service delivery, resource use, and planning that will become even more important in the decades ahead’, which the ‘city governments’ will have greater responsibilities for managing (UN, 2013:17). In African cities, one of the development aspects where fresh solutions are needed to transform is the decoupling of pollution from industrial manufacturing or greening of existing industries into green industries and the creation of new green industries though the application of new sustainability science models, strategies and principles which past industrial models lacked.SDb

The growing desire to improve and sustain urban lives is switching the focus from all other things to utilizing strategic green industrialisation to deliver green growth over time. How green growth is a product of green industrialisation is up to date unfolding. The attempt to measure the ‘extent to which an economy has achieved green growth requires an understanding’ of “decoupling” (Dittrich et. al., 2012) both its relativity and absoluteness. For Dittrich et al., (2012:33) decoupling ‘refers to the amount of materials in relation to economic output or in relation to environmental impact’. In their view, decoupling ‘is a good start towards sustainable development but not sufficient in the long term, as environmental pressures continue to increase’. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation concisely explains both relative and absolute decoupling respectively as occurring ‘when environmental pressures are continuing, but at a lesser rate than the economic variable’ and occurring ‘when the environmental pressures are stable or decreasing while economic growth continues to increase’ (UNIDO, 2011:15).

Governing cities has seen dramatic changes in models of decision-making and approaches in response to magnitude of issues that have to be resolved and evidenced by emergence of decoupling that carries along with it “dematerialisation”. The prescription of development models to guide how cities are governed, managed, and directed has always not been fruitful so is prescribing decoupling may not lead to significant results. Every city has a choice to undertake or not to undertake decoupling. But, green industrialization is a necessity. As global cities strategise to transit to green growth, strengthening foundations of green industrialization to inter-embrace social, economic and environmental aspect as a way of decoupling pollution from manufacturing in cities has become important.

The argument as to whether African cities should be decoupled is still not conclusive because the subject has still not reached urban policy roundtables as compared to academics. There is no evidence that without dematerialisation of urban economies green industrialisation cannot play important role in generating appreciable green growth to support the objectives of enhancing human well-beings and saving urban environments from the degradation of natural resources. In locations where it becomes unavoidable that decoupling cannot be implemented, developing cities can initially focus on creation of new green industries and enhancing “material productivity” instead of dematerialising urban economic systems which rather need more build up of materials to create more wealth and inclusively share with all. What it means is that ‘material productivity and increasing income are closely linked to each other’ (Dittrich et. al., 2012:49) and can be initially pursued by several cities in place of strict decoupling.

According to the current report on the world economic situation and prospects, the promotion of sectors such as ‘agriculture, construction and manufacturing’, tend to speed poverty reduction and job creation (Loayza and Raddatz, 2006 cited in UN-DESA, 2016:27). Ironically, the industrial manufacturing sector’s ‘share of total employment’ continue to decline since 1990 due to rising ‘capital intensive’ nature of industrial production (HDR, 2015:79). In Ghana, manufacturing is more urbanised and its decline in relation to GDP is not refuted. The most important thing is that green manufacturing presents enormous opportunities to reverse downward trend of manufacturing and creation of more green jobs for youth in and around the cities. On a wider scale, UNIDO (2011) had already recorded the contribution of green industrialisation to the creation of jobs for ‘over 15 million persons’ through ‘urban material recycling’.

Within urban landscape worldwide, there are increasing ‘global flows of commodities, capital, and people, where land that provides goods and ecosystems services for people is becoming more segregated from the space of habitation’ (Seto et. al., 2012:7687) – a complex sustainability situation which requires open space maximisation and resource use efficiency in the form of cleaner production and greener housing. Cleaner production increases profits and leads to green growth of urban economy, which central governments are always longing for. But the caveat is that green growth is not the end. For green growth to be socially inclusive and sustainable, sustainability decision is needed (see Figure 1) to promote wealth redistribution, which is susceptible to globalisation. The service flows within the urban fringes tend to be influenced beyond local interactions to globalisation, which fosters ‘global interdependence, with major impacts on patterns of trade, investment, growth and job creation…’ (HDR, 2015:7). How globalisation interacts with urbanisation can present bad and good things developmentally. Globalisation can promote more ‘resource-efficient patterns of economic development by helping to concentrate production’ (UNIDO 2011:36) in locations that have better green economies of scale.

This signifies that the “green task” at hand is a task needing all hands to get accomplished in African cities or elsewhere. Many African urban economies are yet to meet high GDP growth and accumulate enough materials at the level of developed urban economies to warrant absolute decoupling. Attaining higher GDP is dependent on green growth generated by cities like Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cairo, Dakar and Windhoek. If greener cities are what are needed, then waiting to become develop before beginning the process of decoupling is questioned. When decoupling is seen in the immediate term as an issue, the alternative for developing cities is to initiate recoupling activities to advance green growth or GDP. It should be noted that achieving inclusive and greener cities can have greater implications for achieving green economic benefits (see Figure 1). Several social movements to do good for society, including ‘sus­tainable development’ haSDbd encountered oppo­sition (Kates et. al., 2005:18) so is cyclical traits of hostility coming up with green industrialisation. The bottom-line is that urban governments that accept and
strategically utilise green industrial models, policies and other resource efficiency interventions will achieve 2030 Agenda faster and sustainably to make better human lives in secure conditions.

Figure 2: Green industrialization and SDGs





  1. Clark, H., 2016. Leadership for sustainability. United Nations Development Programme, January 21, 2016. /sustainability-leadershipchallenges-by-helen-clark-2016-01#y6PmW7wqKgXkVWx2.99 [Accessed 25.02.2016].
  2. Dittrich, M.; Giljum, S.; Lutter, S. and Polzin, C., 2012. Green economies around the world? Implications of resource use for development and the environment. Austria/Germany.
  3. HDR, 2015. Work for human development. UNDP, New York.
  4. Kates, W.R.; Parris, M.T. and Leiserowitz, A. A., 2005. What is sustainable development?  Goals, indicators, values, and practice.   Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 47(3) 8–21.
  5. Omilola, B., 2014. Inclusive green growth in Africa: rationale, challenges and opportunities. Policy Brief. UNDP, South Africa. [Accessed on 30.03.2016].
  6. Seto, K.C.; Reenberg, A.; Boone, G.C.; Fragkias, M.; Haase, D.; Langanke, T.; Marcotullio, P.; Munroe, D.K.; Olah, B. and Simon, D., 2012. Urban land teleconnections and sustainability. PNAS 109 (20), 7687–
  7. UN-DESA, 2016. World economic situation and prospects 2016. New York.
  8. UNEP, 2015. Building inclusive green economies in Africa: experience and lessons learned, 2010-2015. 50 pages, Nairobi.
  9. UNIDO, 2011. Green industry: policies for supporting green industry. Vienna, Austria.
  10. Vollrath, D.; Jedwab, R. and Gollin, D., 2016. Urbanisation with and without industrialisation. International Growth Centre, March 09, 2016. [Accessed 01.04.2016].