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Meeting 2030 primary energy and economic growth goals: Mission impossible?

Heun, Matthew Kuperus, Brockway, Paul E.
Applied energy 2019 v.251 pp. 112697
carbon dioxide, climate change, economic development, emissions, energy efficiency, exergy, gross domestic product, human development, primary energy, Ghana, United Kingdom
To meet climate change mitigation objectives, international institutions have adopted targets aimed at reducing or ending growth of primary energy consumption. Simultaneously, continued economic growth is forecasted to meet human development goals. Together, declining energy consumption and rising gross domestic product (GDP) is called “absolute decoupling.” However, absolute decoupling is unprecedented for the world economy as a whole (since at least 1971). Is absolute decoupling “Mission impossible?” Given the high stakes, we need a clearer understanding of the extent of future energy–GDP decoupling. To gain that understanding, we perform societal exergy analyses using a novel Physical Supply Use Table framework to assess historical and future trends of primary energy consumption and economic growth for one medium human development index country and one very high human development index country, Ghana and the United Kingdom (UK), respectively.Three key results are obtained. First, we find that it will be very difficult to absolutely decouple primary energy consumption from economic activity. This is particularly true for Ghana’s rapidly growing economy, where projected economic growth of 5.0 %/year will require growth of primary energy consumption of around 2.0 %/year. It is also true for the UK, where at best primary energy consumption appears constant into the future to provide a projected GDP growth of 2.7 %/year. Second, we find that energy efficiency is not an effective means to reduce primary energy consumption and associated carbon dioxide emissions due to economy-wide feedback effects, placing greater importance on decarbonizing the primary energy supply. Third, we find primary energy intensity is not an appropriate metric to measure energy reduction progress, because meeting primary energy intensity targets does not ensure absolute decoupling will occur. At present, absolute decoupling appears to be mission impossible.