Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP

In a recent post, I discovered something rather alarming–the fact that in the last decade (2000 to 2010) both world energy consumption and the CO2 emissions from this energy consumption were rising as fast as GDP for the world as a whole. This relationship is especially strange, because prior to 2000, it appeared as though decoupling was taking place: GDP was growing more rapidly than energy use and CO2 emissions. And even after 2000, many countries continued to report decoupling.

I decided to sift through individual country results, to see if I could see a pattern emerging behind these changing results. When I did this, I found three major groupings of countries:

1. Southeast Asia, excluding Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. This group has been rapidly industrializing. In total, the group’s energy consumption has grown as rapidly as GDP in the last decade, and CO2 emissions have grown faster than GDP. This group includes China, India, Korea, Viet Nam, and a long list of other countries in Southeast Asia, including nearby islands.

2. Middle Eastern Countries. This group showed energy use growing more rapidly than GDP,  suggesting that it was taking more energy to extract oil and to pacify its population, over time. I included all countries in this group that BP includes in its Middle Eastern grouping, even though Israel (and perhaps some other countries) do not fit the pattern well.

3. Rest of the World. This group is the only group showing a favorable trend in energy growth relative to GDP growth, even in the last decade, although the pace of improvement has slowed. Two reasons for this favorable trend seem to be (a) continued growth of services, such as financial service, healthcare, and education, which use relatively little energy and (b) outsourcing of a major portion of heavy industry to Southeast Asia.

When we look at CO2 emissions broken out into these three categories, the shift over time is quite surprising:

Figure 1. Carbon dioxide emissions emitted in year shown by the three major areas described (Southeast Asia, Middle East, Remainder), based on BP Statistical Data

The vast majority of the CO2 increase since 1980 has taken place in the Southeast Asia and the Middle Eastern areas!

The energy intensity of GDP (that is, the amount of energy consumed per trillion dollars of real GDP) has shown very different patterns for the three groups of countries:

Figure 2. Energy Intensity of GDP by Area, based on BP Statistical Data regarding Energy Consumption in Barrels of Oil Equivalent, and USDA Economic Research Data regarding real GDP.

The World energy intensity of GDP has flattened in the last decade, reflecting a combination of the impacts of the three areas. The only area that has an improving energy intensity of GDP is the Remainder group. The Southeast Asia group is roughly flat. The Middle Eastern group is shows increasing energy use, relative to GDP growth.

Based on data in this post, I come to the following tentative conclusions:

1. The industrialization of Southeast Asia has allowed importers from around the world to reduce their energy intensity of GDP, but much of the savings has been offset by greater energy use (largely coal) in Southeast Asia. On a CO2 basis, we are likely  worse off, because of this transfer.

2. There is no evidence that the Kyoto Protocol reduced worldwide CO2 emissions. In fact, to the extent that it encouraged outsourcing of industrial production to the Far East and made goods from the Far East more competitive, it may have contributed to rising world CO2 emissions. It would appear that a different approach is needed that recognizes the fact that fuels are part of a world market. Fuel savings in one part of the world are not necessarily helpful for the world as a whole.

3. In my view, world industrial production has self-organized in a way that assigns different roles to companies operating in the three country groups I described above, as a way to minimize manufacturing costs. Over the long term, this particular version of self-organization cannot continue. The Middle East will reach a point where its oil exports drop rapidly. Southeast Asia will reach maximums on coal production/imports and on pollution levels. The “Remainder” is already reaching limits in competing with Southeast Asia. Unemployment rates are high, manufacturing wages are low, and many workers lack the  income needed to purchase additional services which might “grow” GDP. Continue reading