Implications for climate change



A schematic of growth in energy consumption and wealth and CO2 emissions. Adjusted for inflation, all GDP adds to historically accumulated wealth, since wealth as defined is general enough to include people. The rate of return on wealth is the GDP and is a variable quantity that allows for both production and decay forces. Through a constant lambda, GDP is linked to energy consumption growth and wealth is linked to energy consumption. Energy consumption is linked to CO2 emissions E, and the fraction of CO2 that accumulates in the atmosphere then acts as a negative feedback on wealth by accelerating decay and effectively damping the rate of return.

There are quite a wide variety of implications of a physics based economic for understanding the relationship between humanity and climate during the Anthropocene. Some are some rather depressing, and a few enjoyably counter-intuitive (if still far from cheering). In a nutshell:

  1. If the global economy is able to achieve gains in energy efficiency or energy productivity, it will accelerate energy consumption by accelerating healthy civilization growth into new energy reserves. Efficiency gains create a “super-exponential” acceleration of energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions while growing the GDP. Expressed in terms of economic demand, this effect has been termed “backfire” or “Jevons’ Paradox”.

  2. Growing global wealth requires increasing global emissions of carbon dioxide because both are linked to energy consumption rates. The two go hand in hand ... unless we change civilization’s fuel mix.  If we are to simply stabilize CO2 emissions at current growth rates, this would require building the equivalent of about one new nuclear power plant per day.

  3. If we are no longer able to grow our rate of consumption from our energy reservoirs, then civilization wealth will enter a phase of collapse. A collapsing civilization will emit less CO2 because it is consuming less energy.

  4. If global warming becomes so severe that it causes civilization collapse despite our best efforts to avoid it, it will manifest itself economically through hyper-inflation.

  5. Stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations below a level of 450 ppmv that might be considered dangerous requires civilization to begin a collapse of its wealth almost immediately.

Garrett, T. J., 2012: No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change, Earth System Dynamics 3, 1-17, doi:10.5194/esd-3-1-2012

Garrett, T. J., 2011 Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide? Climatic Change, 104, 437-455,  doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9717-9

Economic Growth and Climate Change — No Way Out?  Energy Bulletin Feb 3, 2010


C = Global Wealth

a = Global energy consumption rate

a/C = Power per dollar