In his new Climatic Change study – which is based on the concept that physics can be used to characterize the evolution of civilization – Garrett argues that energy conservation or efficiency doesn't really save energy, but instead spurs economic growth and accelerates energy consumption.
Additionally, the paper claims that "[s]tabilization of carbon dioxide emissions at current rates will require approximately 300 gigawatts of new non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power production capacity annually – approximately one new nuclear power plant (or equivalent) per day." Physically, there are no other options without killing the economy," Garrett says.
The study's key finding "is that accumulated economic production over the course of history has been tied to the rate of energy consumption at a global level through a constant factor." That "constant" is 9.7 (plus or minus 0.3) milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar. So if you look at economic and energy production at any specific time in history, "each inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar would be supported by 9.7 milliwatts of primary energy consumption," Garrett says.
When testing his theory, Garrett found this constant relationship between energy use and economic production at any given time by using United Nations statistics for global GDP, U.S.Department of Energy data on global energy consumption during 1970-2005, and previous studies that estimated global economic production as long as 2,000 years ago. Then he investigated the implications for carbon dioxide emissions.
"Economists think you need population and standard of living to estimate productivity," he says. "In my model, all you need to know is how fast energy consumption is rising. The reason why is because there is this link between the economy and rates of energy consumption, and it's just a constant factor."
Garrett adds: "By finding this constant factor, the problem of [forecasting] global economic growth is dramatically simpler. There is no need to consider population growth and changes in standard of living because they are marching to the tune of the availability of energy supplies."To Garrett, that means the acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions is unlikely to change soon because our energy use today is tied to society's past economic productivity.
"Viewed from this perspective, civilization evolves in a spontaneous feedback loop maintained only by energy consumption and incorporation of environmental matter," Garrett says. It is like a
child that "grows by consuming food, and when the child grows, it is able to consume more food, which enables it to grow more."
He says the idea that resource conservation accelerates resource consumption – known as Jevons paradox – was proposed in the 1865 book "The Coal Question" by William Stanley Jevons, who noted that coal prices fell and coal consumption soared after improvements in steam engine efficiency.
So is Garrett arguing that conserving energy doesn't matter? "I'm just saying it's not really possible to conserve energy in a meaningful way because the current rate of energy consumption is determined by the unchangeable past of economic production…If it feels good to conserve energy, that is fine, but there shouldn't be any pretense that it will make a difference."
Nonetheless, Garrett suggests that "[i]f society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming."
Citation: This study will appear online in Climactic Change later this week