Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Are We Decoupling? (Not really, but happy 2018 anyway!)

"Decoupling": are we really so smart that we can do more with less? Apparently not: we can paint things in green, but it is not the same thing. But so is life and happy 2018 to everybody! 

Decoupling looks like an obvious idea, isn't it? After all, isn't that true that we are becoming more efficient? Think of a modern LED light compared with an old lamp powered by a whale oil. We are now hundreds of times more efficient than we were and we also saved the whales (but, wait, did we.....?). So, if we can do the same things with much less energy, then we could grow the economy without using more energy, solving the climate problem and also the depletion problem. It is part of the concept of "dematerialization" of the economy. Then we paint everything in green and all will be well in the best of worlds.

But there has to be something wrong with this idea, because it is just not happening, at least at the global scale. Just take a look at this image:

Note how closely related the GDP an the world's energy consumption are. It is impressive because the GDP is measured in terms of money flows. So it seems that money, although not a measure of power in itself, is a proxy for power. The idea that "money is power" doesn't seem to be just a metaphor.

Now, by carefully looking at the curve, we could say that we have been doing a little better in recent years. That is, we seem to have been able to produce a little more GDP for the same amount of energy. But there are two problems: the first that the divergence we see today is not larger than anything we have seen during the past 50 years. The second that this is NOT decoupling as it is normally defined, that is, the ability to grow the economy (the GDP) while at the same time consuming less energy.

Of course, we may argue about the definition of decoupling, but nothing short of a complete inversion of the current trend would allow us to keep growing while, at the same time, avoiding the double challenge of climate change and of mineral depletion. But if that were happening, you would see the little circles in the graph completely change the slope of the curve, forming a kind of "hockey stick" shaped curve. That's not the case, obviously.

Actually, if you really eyeball the curve, you can see a small hockey stick that occurs at points 14-16. These points correspond to 1979-1981, a historical phase of reduced energy production during the most difficult moment of the great "oil crisis." For about three years, at that time, we had true decoupling, but it was hardly something pleasant or that we would want to repeat today in the same terms.

In the end, society needs energy to function and the idea that we can do more with less with the help of better technologies seems to be just an illusion. If we reduce energy consumption, we'll most likely enter a phase of economic decline. Which might not be a bad thing if we were able to manage it well. Maybe. Calling this "a challenge" seems to be a true euphemism, if ever there was one. But, who knows? Happy 2018, everybody!


Further notes: all the above is at the global level for the total (primary) energy production. It doesn't mean that some kind of decoupling can't be obtained at the regional level or for some specific kinds of sources. So, let's take a look first at the regional level:

I haven't been able to find the origin of this graph, but it seems to be legitimate (note how the axes are exchanged with respect to the one I showed before). The curves for single states are noisier than those for the global economy, which may indicate that states move high energy intensive activities from one to another. But, overall, the linear relation between GDP and energy consumption remains the same. We see "hockey sticks" (for Russia, for instance) they correspond to major economic crises, again not something that we would like to have.

Now, let's see some data for specific energy sources. The case of crude oil is especially interesting. Here, I am reporting some data from a paper by Michel Lepetit, of "The Shift Project" (h/t Thierry Caminel)

We clearly see here the hockey stick of the energy crisis o 1973-1982; it is much more evident for crude oil than it is for the aggregated world energy production. Note also how the slope of the curve of GDP vs. Production changed after the oil crisis. Evidently, the world's economy emerged from the crisis less reliant on crude oil: a certain degree of decoupling had occurred. 

But note also that the slope of the curve from 1982 onward still shows a positive dependence of oil production vs. the economy. A true "decoupling" would mean inverting the trend, as shown below (again from Le Petit's paper), where we see what we expect from the IEA scenarios

As you see, true decoupling is quite a challenge. We saw that kind of slope change only for the great oil crisis of the late 1970s. Maybe we could see it again, today, only for another comparable crisis. 

Nevertheless, I don't think it is impossible to decouple from crude oil. As I argued in a previous post, the oil industry may be facing a "Seneca Cliff" as the result of the contemporary challenges of depletion and of technological change in transportation. But that would mean little to save humankind from a climate catastrophe if it is compensated by an increase in the production of energy from other dirty sources, say, coal.  And so, we keep going and the future is waiting for us. 


  1. The curve to watch is the Keeling Curve. It is still accelerating upwards. Unless it straightens out, levels off and then rolls over in decline, it makes no difference how many dollars of GDP are associated with energy use. The carbon budget is what matters.

    1. Getting Keeling to flatten or drop would requires the Carbon sinks to catch up with CO2 emissions.Getting current 40 Gt CO2 down to half that is going to come with some economic downsides.

    2. Yes indeed. In fact, the economic downside of reducing carbon emissions sufficiently is now about equal to or greater than the economic contraction from financial crisis, pandemic, or war.

      That's what happens when sufficient reduction in carbon emissions is not made early and when an insufficient proportion of the the carbon that was emitted was for construction of non-carbon energy sources.

      We have now waited far too long, so it looks like economic collapse is the only solution to carbon emissions. Here's hoping that it's sooner rather than later.

  2. How much is the amount of energy used to produce useless items and services which people buy because they are pressed by advertisement? Let's think to the car industry: private cars as a mean of transport is very ineffective but people are buying cars instead of asking public transport. Let's think to the water in bottles: a big business for a few corporations when tap water is good enough. I think that a reduction of the energy power can't be achieved without a redistribution of the political power. Good new year

  3. As Jevons pointed out, efficiency does not bring decoupling.

    My guess is that the only way it could is if it came hand in hand with
    proportional increases in energy price per unit. If efficiency goes
    up by X% so too must energy pricing go up by much more than X, or
    there will be no reduction in consumption.

    There's also of course the factor of population...more people being
    more efficient can still mean increasing total consumption. That's
    what's been happening for the past few decades, and it's another
    example of Jevons...getting more efficient just encourages more
    population growth as long as the resources are there and priced low

    The only way we can really reduce our energy consumption and make a full transition
    to renewable sources is if the price of fossils is increased very
    steeply to the same levels where renewables would have to be priced. Efficiency investment is needed too in order to reduce the amount of renewable energy buildup we will need and to buy us time, but efficiency by itself gets us nowhere without increasing the pricing of fossils greatly enough.

    Fossil energy prices will not be doing that in time to push a high enough investment rate in renewable buildup, especially as we reach the point at which investments in storage and stabilization are needed, unless we use taxation on fossils, but taxation as high as it needs to be is not going to fly politically.

    We will be going off the Seneca Cliff.

    1. With efficiency we do get some decoupling, that is, growth with less and less energy, but we still have growth which increases total energy usage!

      Keep in mind, full renewables implies massive projects which will not reduce total resource usage. It's just a different way of consuming everything in sight.

      Good link btw, thanks.

  4. If ecological impact is a measure of population x affluence x technical efficiency then surely we need radical change to the way we govern and manage the planet? How do we bring this about?

  5. There appears to be very little in the way of obvious public global panic warnings for while major change in system behaviour is occurring now, such as a Seneca collapse, even though we suspect it is already upon us. Every government and corporate assumes business as usual will somehow continue, even as everything is becoming squeezed harder. We are all animals that live in the current system state.

  6. There's no sign of decoupling because, simply put, decoupling is physically impossible. At least, if "decoupling" has the same meaning as most economists give to this word, that is: the possibility to keep growing the economy forever while reducing (or keeping constant) the energy usage. The size of the "economy" is in fact measured by the "value" generated by all the economic ACTIVITIES in the world. We can debate forever about how to define exactly what is "value" and how to measure it correctly, but whatever meaningful (and objective) definition you choose, it implies that you should perform some "economic activity" in order to produce that "value". Now, there's no activity whatsoever that is purely spiritual: all meaningful economic activities require energy to be performed, even sitting in your room alone and dreaming about tigers. And sometimes the energy required to perform such apparently "dematerialized" activities is surprisingly high: sitting in your room and dreaming away means that you must be alive and healthy (= you need food and medical care), that you have a room (= someone had to build it for you), that the temperature inside is at least bearable (= heating in winter, perhaps cooling in summer), etc. etc. This means that there's no meaningful way to increase the economic value without increasing the economic activities that produce such value, and in the end (since there's a physical limit to energy efficiency) without increasing the energy usage. Not to mention the Jevons effect.

  7. exactly this is what i want to say



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)