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Grow First, Clean Up Later? Dropping Old Paradigms and Opening Up New Horizons of Sustainable Development

Institute of Development Research and Development Policy, Ruhr-University Bochum, 44801 Bochum, Germany
Faculty of Economics, Wenzhou-Kean University, Wenzhou 325015, China
Center for Studies on Europe, Azerbaijan State University of Economics, Baku AZ1001, Azerbaijan
Center for Economic Development and Social Change (CED), 80128 Naples, Italy
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2023, 15(4), 3595;
Submission received: 2 February 2023 / Accepted: 6 February 2023 / Published: 15 February 2023


After almost two decades of continuous development in bio, circular, and green economy, it is time to assess the major achievements and challenges that private and public enterprises face today for further enhancing global sustainability concepts. To this end, the present thematic issue accommodates twenty articles on different topics related to circular economy development and green growth, proposing a contribution to the field of environmental economics and policy. The central feature of this Special Issue is the focus on the best practices and challenges in terms of green growth and eco-innovation in developing and transitioning structurally challenged areas. Hence, the study elaborates on the pathways of bio, circular, and green growth and eco-innovation in the context of countries with relatively low per capita income. By doing this, the collection shows that the empirically established environmental Kuznets curve—i.e., the inverted U-shaped income-environment nexus—can and must be critically questioned, at least in the contexts mentioned within the framework of our Special Issue. Hence, the geographic frontiers of environmental upgrading, carbon-saving bioeconomic development, and green growth are not limited to the economically advanced areas.

1. Introduction: Grow & Perish?

Five decades have passed since the publications of the Limits to Growth of the Club of Rome and the “Only the Earth” in Stockholm—the first UN Conference on the limitations in the absorptive capacity of the global environment [1]. Both events marked the start of the discussion of global environmentalism and putting the environment on the political agenda of the dialogue between industrialized and developing countries [2].
The 1972 UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm was the first truly global conference on the environment that, for the first time in history, elevated environmental protection to the top of the global political agenda. Twenty years later, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was an important caesura in understanding the importance of developing countries in protecting the global environment. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was probably the greatest milestone and the first truly global treaty on climate action. Despite generous nationally-determined pledges within the agreement, there have been plenty of drawbacks [3]. The undertaken climate action is nowhere near enough to achieve the set climate targets [4].
Despite increasing environmental awareness in developing, transitioning, and emerging economies and impressive nationally determined pledges within the Paris Agreement, economic growth, job creation, and poverty alleviation have been the central focus of the public policies in these countries [5]. The Global North has not been taking sufficient responsibility for the development of carbon-saving technology solutions in the Global South. This explains why fifty years after the publication of The Limits to Growth we do not only have an empirical validation of its pessimism regarding the doubling of global resource use, but also the evidence that the business-as-usual rushes human civilization to its own destruction. Fifty years later, mankind is on the brink of the socioeconomic abyss and climate catastrophe [4]. Hence, mankind can no longer afford the “grow first, clean up later” model, which continues to dominate the growth and development patterns in the developing, transitioning, and structurally challenged areas worldwide [6].
The inverted U-shaped relationship between per capita income (PCI) and per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, i.e., the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC) hypothesis is probably empirically the most established regularity within the framework of environmental macroeconomics. It has been validated for advanced, developing, and transitional economies [7,8]. The EKC is nothing but a regularity of growing first and cleaning up later and it is at odds with the ongoing climate crisis and the related climate targets within the framework of the Paris Agreement [9].
The augmentation of the income-environment perspective by the pollution haven hypothesis, which has been also empirically validated in a number of recent studies, shows that even the progress in terms of environmental upgrading in OECD countries are attributed to the relocation of the dirty industries to the countries of the Global South [9]. Hence, following the empirically validated patterns of environmental development is not congruent with the energy and climate futures we want [9,10,11,12].
Does this mean that there are no alternatives to the environmental Kuznets curve and the pollution haven hypotheses? Is humanity predestined to lose the climate emergency race? How are grave disruptions such as COVID-19, geopolitical turmoil, and major shocks affecting our societies, economies, and ecosystems? Shall we accept a grow-and-perish paradigm, opting for a trade-off between environmental, social, and economic targets [13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37]?

2. Content of the Thematic Issue

The thematic issue accommodates three reviews and sixteen research papers. Breaugh et al. [37], provide a systematic literature review on innovation scaling and the role of innovation in overcoming global issues such as climate change, sustainable management of natural resources, and economic inequality. They outline the ontological differences between the “diffusion” and “scaling” of innovations and establish a research agenda for the assessment of innovation scaling and by doing so, frame the present thematic issue conceptually [37,38]. The rest of the works, including the two review papers, Solaymani [39] and Abbas et al. [32], address the individual country cases of developing or structurally challenged areas of Southern Europe [39].
Abbas et al. [32] analyze the effect of COVID-19 on the Pakistani economy and find that the pandemic severely hit different sectors of the economy and large swaths of the population. However, the poorest in society, especially the daily-wage earners and the runners of small businesses, were disproportionately hit in Pakistan. Wang and Chen [14] address an interesting question of the efficiency and effectiveness of the consumption coupons in China that were introduced in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. They propose an improved minimum-cost maximum flow approach that could optimize consumption coupon policies both in the Chinese and non-Chinese contexts.
Fernández Luiña et al. [15] elaborate on the issue of the community commitment to sustainability using the case study of forest protection policies in Guatemala. Here, the authors illustrate how Guatemala implements forest preservation policies through community concessions. The research paper contributes to the theoretical literature by extending the scope of the analysis to modern municipals’ forest preservation practices. Based on the empirical findings, the authors recommend the government of Guatemala the employment of decentralized forest policies at the national level.
Bin-Nashwan et al. [16] conduct a cross-country analysis of the donor responses to the fundraising appeals for combating the epidemic. The study is based on a quantitative analysis of 801 donors from Kuwait and Bahrain. The authors find that both in Kuwait and Bahrain, humanitarian projects, internet technology, social networking sites, and religiosity are significant determinants of donor attitudes toward online donations.
Mammadli [17] and Zeynalova and Namazova [18] analyze the environmentally relevant behavior of enterprises and end-consumers in the context of transition economies. Both research articles focus on the case studies of Azerbaijan. In the former publication, the environmentally responsible approaches of Azerbaijani companies correspond with the size of the private firms in terms of sales and the number of their employees [17]. In the latter of these studies, the willingness to pay for green technology-based products is predicated on the statistical analysis of 536 structured interviews in the greater area of Baku [18]. In contrast to [17] which analyzes enterprises and [18] which analyzes consumer behavior, Montakhabi et al. [19] explore the behavior of the prosumers and their barriers to the enhancement of sustainable business models in electricity markets. The work contributes to the theory of the firm by applying the resource-based approach in an entirely novel context of energy economics [20,21,22].
Leal Filho et al. [23] analyze the role of renewable energy for fostering energy security of small island developing states. Their study is based on a comprehensive quantitative literature review and policy analysis that has been conducted by means of VOSviewer, a prominent software for bibliometric analyses. The authors also find that renewable energy contributes in a decisive way to the food security of the small island developing states.
Kennedyd et al. [24] address the question of economic sustainability in China. The inquiry explores the underlying factors that influence Chinese online consumers’ acceptance of online shopping platforms. The authors of the study assess 691 interviews of Chinese online shoppers. Embedding the data into the theoretical model yields interesting results with regard to the choice patterns of the e-commerce platforms and consumer attitudes.
Marjerison et al. [25] analyze the creation of sustainable organizations through knowledge sharing and organizational agility in China. The study analyzes 720 online questionnaires and finds that working groups that are more agile have a greater capacity of harnessing the knowledge-sharing culture. The validity of these findings spans various classes of businesses. Li et al. [26] complement the investigation of Marjerison et al. [25] in a meaningful way. They propose a novel multi-factor three-step feature selection and deep learning framework for regional GDP prediction in the Chinese provinces [26].
Chen [27] compares two panel data sets of developing and advanced economies for a time frame spanning between 1990 and 2021 and shows that economic competitiveness and increased commodity prices lead to the increasing adoption of green technologies and decarbonization of the entire economy. The study of Xu et al. [28] address a similar issue by investigating the changes in firm innovation in the aftermath of the Sino-U.S. trade grievance. Their analysis is based on the unique microdata of the Chinese technology firms. The authors find that Sino-U.S. trade friction has led to a significant increase of the innovations of Chinese exporters.
Zhao and Chen [29] also address the case of China and examine the effect of family lifestyle and neighborhood on the willingness of households to sort their waste. The authors inspect China Labor Force Dynamics Survey for 2016 and show that lifestyle and neighborhood have a significant impact on households’ waste management patterns. Abdelsalam et al. [30] also address the problem of waste management, but in a totally different setting, focusing on the Libyan public hospitals. This publication finds that organizational culture and structure play a decisive role in the waste management practices of the Libyan hospitals.
Based on structured interviews of 359 consumers, Civero et al. [40] scrutinize consumer behavior in the city of Naples in Southern Italy. The authors show that also in the structurally challenged areas, the consumers’ purchasing choices of food staples are not based only on purely economic but also on ethical and environmental factors. The authors employ a factor analysis that enables the classification of the consumers in five homogenous clusters. Selected pathways of using the emerging trend of new social consumption are predicated for the formulation of better public policies to foster ecological sustainability.
Sadik-Zada [37] analyze the perspectives of green hydrogen rollout from the lens of both international and development economics. The author shows that the development of the green hydrogen value chain and the substitution of fossil fuels by green hydrogen could lead to clean and circular energy systems in a number of countries of the Global North. In addition, the review of the national and European hydrogen strategies indicates that fostering of international development cooperation, especially international energy cooperation of the EU with the solar energy-abundant countries of Africa could accelerate the green hydrogen take-off in Europe. Furthermore, the study also shows that investing in the development of green hydrogen production in Africa could also substantially contribute to socio-economic development and energy transition in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Solaymani [38] analyzes the environmental and energy sustainability problems of fossil fuels that rich countries are using through the case study of Iran. The research paper is of particular interest because of the growing significance of petroleum-exporting countries in the global carbon footprint [7]. There is also empirical evidence that oil-rich developing and transition economies do not follow the inverted U-shaped, but rather a monotonically increasing average income-environment relationship [8]. The author employs advanced co-integration techniques to the data from Iran and detects a unidirectional causality between non-renewable energy production and the growth of the renewables in the energy mix. This implies that Iranian growth, which almost entirely relies on petroleum exports, has substantially contributed to decarbonization of Iranian electricity mix.

3. Concluding Remarks: Striving to Be More Sustainable

Together with the editorial, the present Special Issue accommodated twenty contributions, whereby three of them are literature reviews and sixteen of them are research papers. Both review and research papers focus on the analysis of developing, transition, emerging economies, and structurally challenged areas of Southern Europe. “Frontiers and Best Practices in Bio, Circular, and Green Growth” make clear that geographic frontiers of environmental upgrading, carbon-saving bioeconomy development, and green growth are not confined to economically advanced areas and shall be tackled as global ecological and sustainable development priorities.
The presented positive examples from this group of countries in this thematic issue do not contest the empirical validity of the environmental Kuznets curve and pollution haven hypotheses. By showing positive examples, it rather shows that based on novel management approaches, the mentioned empirical regularities could be successfully obviated. Economic growth of developing, transition, and emerging economies can be aligned with environmental sustainability. This confirms that, even in developing, transitioning, and emerging economies, positive experiences denote a global strive towards sustainability. These shreds of evidence also suggest that the economic, environmental, and social components of development shall not be liable to trade-offs and a holistic and pluralistic sustainable development purview needs to be enforced globally.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Sadik-Zada, E.R.; Gatto, A. Grow First, Clean Up Later? Dropping Old Paradigms and Opening Up New Horizons of Sustainable Development. Sustainability 2023, 15, 3595.

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Sadik-Zada ER, Gatto A. Grow First, Clean Up Later? Dropping Old Paradigms and Opening Up New Horizons of Sustainable Development. Sustainability. 2023; 15(4):3595.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Sadik-Zada, Elkhan Richard, and Andrea Gatto. 2023. "Grow First, Clean Up Later? Dropping Old Paradigms and Opening Up New Horizons of Sustainable Development" Sustainability 15, no. 4: 3595.

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