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IEET > Security > Biosecurity > Life > Health > Vision > Fellows > Ramez Naam

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Decoupling Growth From Energy and Carbon

Ramez Naam
By Ramez Naam
Ramez Naam

Posted: Nov 17, 2013

Is it possible to grow an economy without increasing pollution? Without increasing resource use? As I've posted, Americans already use less oil and less water than in previous decades.

Here's a more macro-scale view – US per-capita GDP over the last 40 years (up to 2010) in green, compared to US per capita CO2 emissions and US per capita energy use, in red.

Essentially, we've doubled the size of the US economy (per person) since 1970, while reducing per capita CO2 emissions and keeping energy use flat.  Even after adjusting for outsourced energy use (manufacturing in China, for example), these numbers stay essentially the same, with per-capita CO2 emissions never returning to their 1970 high.

What about on a global basis?  Here there is still an increase occuring in per-capita energy use and per-capita CO2 emissions.  But the increase in per-capita GDP is much larger.

Now, let me be clear here:  This decoupling is not sufficient.  To address climate change we need to see CO2 emissions drop quite substantially.

But bear in mind – this is what we've achieved with almost no cogent policy effort whatsoever.  With a focused effort on reducing CO2, there's every reason to believe that we would see carbon emissions drop as have lead emissions, mercury emissions, sulfur dioxide emissions, CFC emissions, and those of a host of other pollutants.

Carbon will be the biggest pollutant challenge we've ever faced.  At the same time, the indicators are that it's possible to grow an economy without using more of a resource or emitting more of a pollutant, and, when conscious effort is applied, that it's possible to grow an economy while reducing emissions of a pollutant dramatically.

You can read more along these lines in my book on innovating to overcome climate, energy, food, water, and other environmental and natural resource challenges looming ahead of us, The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Ramez Naam, a Fellow of the IEET, is a computer scientist and the author of four books, including the sci-fi thriller Nexus and the nonfiction More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  He writes at

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This is a fascinating article, Mr. Naam. I was aware that economic growth had become somewhat uncoupled from energy use, but had no idea that the decoupling was so pronounced.

These figures show that an abundant future for humans all over the earth is possible. My only concern would be whether an excessive amount of GDP growth in advanced capitalist economies is taking place in the financial sector, where it tends disproportionally to benefit the few.

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