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Past world economic production constrains current energy demands: Persistent scaling with implications for economic growth and climate change mitigation

Abstract

Climate change has become intertwined with the global economy. Here, we describe the contribution of inertia to future trends. Drawing from thermodynamic principles, and using 38 years of available statistics between 1980 to 2017, we find a constant scaling between current rates of world primary energy consumption  and the historical time integral W of past world inflation-adjusted economic production Y, or . In each year, over a period during which both  and W more than doubled, the ratio of the two remained nearly unchanged, that is  Gigawatts per trillion 2010 US dollars. What this near constant implies is that current growth trends in energy consumption, population, and standard of living, perhaps counterintuitively, are determined by past innovations that have improved the economic production efficiency, or enabled use of less energy to transform raw materials into the makeup of civilization. Current observed growth rates agree well with predictions derived from available historical data. Future efforts to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions are likely also to be constrained by the contributions of past innovation to growth. Assuming no further efficiency gains, options look limited to rapid decarbonization of energy consumption through sustained implementation of at least one Gigawatt of renewable or nuclear power capacity per day. Alternatively, with continued reliance on fossil fuels, civilization could shift to a steady-state economy, one that devotes economic production exclusively to maintining ongoing metabolic needs rather than to material expansion. Even if such actions could be achieved immediately, energy consumption would continue at its current level, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would only begin to balance natural sinks at concentrations exceeding 500 ppmv.

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