We talk about the possibility of reducing fossil fuel use by 80% by 2050 and ramping up renewables at the same time, to help prevent climate change. If we did this, what would such a change mean for GDP, based on historical Energy and GDP relationships back to 1820?
Back in March, I showed you this graph in my post, World Energy Consumption since 1820 in Charts.
Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent. The biofuel category also includes wind, solar, and other new renewables.
Graphically, what an 80% reduction in fossil fuels would mean is shown in Figure 2, below. I have also assumed that non-fossil fuels (some combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear, and hydro) could be ramped up by 72%, so that total energy consumption “only” decreases by 50%.
Figure 2. Forecast of world energy consumption, assuming fossil fuel consumption decreases by 80% by 2050, and non fossil fuels increase so that total fuel consumption decreases by “only” 50%. Amounts before black line are actual; amounts after black lines are forecast in this scenario.
We can use actual historical population amounts plus the UN’s forecast of population growth to 2050 to convert these amounts to per capita energy equivalents, shown in Figure 3, below.
Figure 3. Forecast of per capita energy consumption, using the energy estimates in Figure 2 divided by world population estimates by the UN. Amounts before the black line are actual; after the black line are estimates.
In Figure 3, we see that per capita energy use has historically risen, or at least not declined. You may have heard about recent declines in energy consumption in Europe and the US, but these declines have been more than offset by increases in energy consumption in China, India, and the rest of the “developing” world.
With the assumptions chosen, the world per capita energy consumption in 2050 is about equal to the world per capita energy consumption in 1905.
I applied regression analysis to create what I would consider a best-case estimate of future GDP if a decrease in energy supply of the magnitude shown were to take place. The reason I consider it a best-case scenario is because it assumes that the patterns we saw on the up-slope will continue on the down-slope. For example, it assumes that financial systems will continue to operate as today, international trade will continue as in the past, and that there will not be major problems with overthrown governments or interruptions to electrical power. It also assumes that we will continue to transition to a service economy, and that there will be continued growth in energy efficiency.
Based on the regression analysis:
- World economic growth would average a negative 0.59% per year between now and 2050, meaning that the world would be more or less in perpetual recession between now and 2050. Given past relationships, this would be especially the case for Europe and the United States.
- Per capita GDP would drop by 42% for the world between 2010 and 2050, on average. The decrease would likely be greater in higher income countries, such as the United States and Europe, because a more equitable sharing of resources between rich and poor nations would be needed, if the poor nations are to have enough of the basics.
I personally think a voluntary worldwide reduction in fossil fuels is very unlikely, partly because voluntary changes of this sort are virtually impossible to achieve, and partly because I think we are headed toward a near-term financial crash, which is largely the result of high oil prices causing recession in oil importers (like the PIIGS).
The reason I am looking at this scenario is two-fold:
(1) Many people are talking about voluntary reduction of fossil fuels and ramping up renewables, so looking at a best case scenario (that is, major systems hold together and energy efficiency growth continues) for this plan is useful, and
(2) If we encounter a financial crash in the near term, I expect that one result will be at least a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2050 because of financial and trade difficulties, so this scenario in some ways gives an “upper bound” regarding the outcome of such a financial crash.