Study finds energy limits global economic growth

Jan 07, 2011

A study that relates global energy use to economic growth, published in the January issue of BioScience, finds strong correlations between these two measures both among countries and within countries over time. The research leads the study's authors to infer that energy use limits economic activity directly. They conclude that an "enormous" increase in energy supply will be required to meet the demands of projected world population growth and lift the developing world out of poverty without jeopardizing standards of living in most developed countries.

The study, which used a macroecological approach, was based on data from the International Energy Agency and the World Resources Institute. It was conducted by a team of ecologists led by James H. Brown of the University of New Mexico.

The team found the same sort of relationship between per person and per person as is found between metabolism and body weight in animals. Brown's group suggests the similarity is real: cities and countries, like animals, have metabolisms that must burn fuel to sustain themselves and grow. This analogy, together with the data and theory, persuades the authors that the linkage between energy use and economic activity is causal, although other factors must also be in play to explain the variability in the data.

The study goes on to show that variables relating to standard of living, such as the proportion of doctors in a population, the number of televisions per person, and infant mortality rate, are also correlated with both energy consumption per person and gross domestic product per person. These correlations lead the authors to their conclusions about the increases in necessary to sustain a still-growing world population without drops in living standards.

To support the expected in 2050 in the current US lifestyle would require 16 times the current global energy use, for example. Noting that 85 percent of humankind's energy now comes from fossil fuels, the BioScience authors point out that efforts to develop alternative energy sources face economic problems of diminishing returns, and reject the view of many economists that technological innovation can circumvent resource shortages.

Explore further: The significance of digits: just how reliable are reported numbers?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Alarming acceleration in CO2 emissions worldwide

May 21, 2007

Between 2000 and 2004, worldwide CO2 emissions increased at a rate that is over three times the rate during the 1990s—the rate increased from 1.1 % per year during the 1990s to 3.1% per year in the early 2000s.

Reining in carbon dioxide levels imperative but possible

Mar 08, 2006

Implementing a plan to keep rising carbon dioxide levels from reaching potentially dangerous levels could cost less than 1 percent of gross world product as of 2050, a cost that is well within reach of developed and developing ...

Brown economists measure GDP growth from outer space

Sep 04, 2009

Outer space offers a new perspective for measuring economic growth, according to new research by three Brown University economists. In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, J. Vernon Henderson, ...

Is global warming unstoppable?

Nov 23, 2009

In a provocative new study, a University of Utah scientist argues that rising carbon dioxide emissions - the major cause of global warming - cannot be stabilized unless the world's economy collapses or society builds the ...

Recommended for you

Consumer sentiment brightens holiday spending

Nov 27, 2014

Consumer confidence posted its fourth consecutive monthly gain in November, rising to its highest level since July 2007, according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2011
The research leads the study's authors to infer that energy use limits economic activity directly

You're joking?

You dumbasses had to do "research" to figure that out?

How the hell do you think anything gets produced or transported, except by energy consumption?

A very large portion of the cost of something is the energy cost of producing it plus the energy cost of transporting it.

Additionally, a significant portion of the wages of an employee goes into nothing more than the energy cost of that employee transporting themself to and from work every day. Then you have to figure what they spend on their utility bill, etc. Much of an employer's expenses in wages is going to pay the employee's living and transportation expenses in energy.

By the time you count all forms of recursion and feedback, I'd wager at least half of the "price" of an item from raw material to finished goods is probably in some form paying for electricity, oil, or some other energy cost...
3 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2011
Noting that 85 percent of humankind's energy now comes from fossil fuels, the BioScience authors point out that efforts to develop alternative energy sources face economic problems of diminishing returns, and reject the view of many economists that technological innovation can circumvent resource shortages.

Solar Constant: ~1350w/m^2.
Earth Cross-sectional Disk: 1.275E14m^2.
Earth Mean Solar Power Available: 172 petawatts

10% solar panel or tower efficiency gives 17.2 petawatts.

land mass is about 1/4 of the earth, and we cover only 1/10 of land mass, so divide by 40...

would give 430terrawatts, which is 26.875 times the current world energy useage....even with just 10% efficient panels or towers.

Now if we want to tap into that other 39/40ths of the solar constant we can cover all buildings with solar panels and also make floating platforms on the oceans covered in solar panels or towers.

In theory, we got this covered if we can overcome the initial costs.
3 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2011
Here's something for you math majors to ponder.

Comparing wind to solar, and realizing turbines must be placed in a plane of alternating triangular orientation with minimum distance equal to ten times turbine diameter to have max efficiency, I used numbers from wikipedia for the largest 10MW turbine prototypes and assumed a field of 7 turbines in a hexagon according to turbine diameter.

I find that the hexagon would have s length 1450 meters, and area 5,462,455meters square. This farm would give us just 70MW of peak power.

By comparison, the same area covered with 10% efficient solar panels would provide 737MW of peak power. The purchase cost of these panels would be 2.4 billion, but at present electricity costs would pay for themselves in 6.5 years. Making even BAD solar panels 10 times more productive in the same area as compared to the best wind turbines currently under development.

Then factor in researchers claim to have made near 40% efficient solar panels recently...
4 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2011
The boom industries...
a) Solar PV
b) Batteries
c) Electricity+CO2+H2O = hydrocarbons
3 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2011
Maybe that's why the US economy is failing:
Oil drilling banned, no new oil refineries, no new nuclear power plants, ......
2 / 5 (1) Jan 07, 2011
Good comments, Quantum - the author states the obvious and misses the subtleties while doing so. Energy is indeed key, but Japan producing twice the wealth per unit of energy as the U.S. while China produces only half as much is too important to dismiss as ‘variability in the data’.

The newest cells are indeed over 40% efficient, and modules made with them are roughly 30% efficient. The price of these cells necessitates concentrating optics and tracking, but those are coming down in cost.

The U.S. is only 6% of Earth's and area, but yes, sunlight contains plenty of energy.

Right now the economic payback time is roughly 15 years in the U.S. (6.5 years sounds like ignoring the cost of capital or including subsidies). But progress is being made rapidly - within this decade that 6.5-year figure will be reached, and solar will quickly become the dominant peaking power in sunny climates. (To go beyond peaking power will require cost-effective storage).
3 / 5 (1) Jan 07, 2011
ryggesogn - the U.S. doesn't have enough conventional oil reserves for drilling to make more than a minor difference.

However a clean and inexpensive process for shale oil would change that...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.