Decoupling Economic Growth and Environmental Degradation: Reviewing Progress to Date in the Small Island State of Malta

This paper considers the challenge of decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation; in contrast to several large-scale cross-country analyses that focus on limited indicators of environmental degradation, we analyze in some depth the experience of a single small-scale island state setting (Malta). We use available statistical data to derive decoupling factors, in order to consider the extent to which decoupling has been achieved in four sectors: (i) energy intensity, climate change, and air quality; (ii) water; (iii) waste; and (iv) land. Results indicate relative decoupling between economic growth and several indicators considered, and to a lesser extent, relative decoupling between population growth and the same indicators of environmental pressure. Absolute decoupling has been achieved in at least one instance but there has been no decoupling of land development from either economic or population growth. Land use and population thus appear to be notable sources of pressure. The results suggest that decoupling analyses that present environmental degradation in terms of single variables (e.g., carbon emissions) may misrepresent somewhat the state of the environment at local level. Furthermore, the study highlights the need for methodologies that factor in the “embedding” of small-scale settings within much larger trade networks, for a more accurate estimation of environmental impact, and points to some limitations of solely quantitative analyses of environment-ecology relationships.

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