Applying thermodynamic laws to the energy-GDP decoupling problem

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of Earth and Environment

Abstract

Rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are creating a serious threat to our planet, through their key impact of increasing temperatures. The 2015 Paris climate agreement, signed by 195 countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pledges to hold global average temperature increases to 2 'C above pre-industrial levels (c.1750). For context, in 2015, we passed the 1'C rise mark, and most climate models forecast a 2-4'C temperature rise by 2100, unless real actions are taken to reduce GHG emissions. In short, the situation is serious, and the window for staying within the 2'C target is closing.
To reduce GHG emissions, a key part of government policy is to reduce the amount of energy we use. This is because most of our energy come from fossil fuels (i.e. oil, coal, gas), and burning them causes around 75% of the world's GHG emissions. The main policy for reducing energy use has been introducing energy efficient technologies, i.e. more efficient cars, lighting and heating systems. However, a key problem exists: to date energy efficiency has not reduced total energy consumption: in fact energy use globally is still rising, slightly behind economic output (Gross Domestic Product, GDP). Thus energy use and GDP have remained linked, or 'coupled' together. So a key question for the UK (and globally) is to work out exactly how to decouple energy-GDP: i.e. reduce energy use but allow economic growth.
Studying the energy-GDP decoupling problem is the key aim of my research. Given the short time to reduce GHG emissions, we need to look at this problem from as many different angles as possible. This is where my research fits in: I work in an area of research that provides a different approach to looking at this problem compared to the mainstream (i.e. most common) methods. My research uses 'exergy analysis' to study the thermodynamic efficiency of energy use in a whole economy. Exergy is energy that is 'available for work'. Taking an example to illustrate exergy: though water in a hydroelectric dam has 'potential energy', it only becomes 'available for work' if there is a difference in water level between the two sides of the dam. If one side is 150m higher than the other, then physical 'work' (in this case hydroelectricity) can be extracted, but not if both water levels are 150m high. By studying how much energy is available for work as 'exergy' in an economy (for end uses such as transport, industrial machines, heating, cooling, lighting), we can calculate how (thermodynamically) energy efficient the whole economy is.
This thermodynamic measure of energy efficiency (called exergy efficiency) can give us new insights into how much energy we are actually saving, versus how much we think we are going to save. This difference also tells us how much energy 'rebound' we have, i.e. the energy that is taken back by the economy. A better understanding of the size and role of these two factors - energy efficiency and energy rebound - holds the key to unpicking the energy-GDP decoupling puzzle. This is what my research sets out to achieve.
The research is a five year project, based at the University of Leeds, where I will work with a 4 year PhD researcher and 3 year postdoctoral researcher, and other researchers who will contribute part time expertise. Our research in planned in three parts, 1. we will develop national exergy datasets into a global database, which 2. we will use to identify new insights and links of the key factors (energy efficiency and energy rebound) in the energy-GDP relationship, which lastly 3. will be used to test policies for achieving energy-GDP decoupling. We have several project partners outside of the University of Leeds, who we will work together with on sub-projects: The Bank of England; the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS); Calvin College (USA) and Instituto Superior Técnico (Portugal). A steering group will provide advice during the project.

Planned Impact

This project aims to conduct world-class research - applying a rigorous thermodynamic approach to the study of decoupling energy use from economic output (GDP). This section describes the non-academic beneficiaries (readers if they have access should read in conjunction with the Pathways to Impact section - which sets out how impact for these beneficiaries will be achieved).

The first non-academic beneficiary is the modelling community, in two parts:
1. Project partners: Work Package 2 (WP2) contains sub-projects with the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Bank of England. The sub-project with BEIS is to improve the useful energy components of their Energy Demand Model (EDM). The Bank of England sub-project is to harness their finance/debt expertise to improve the MARCO-UK model, and then present to them our results, thereby improving their awareness of our macroeconometric model which account for useful exergy.
2. Mainstream energy-economy models: Current work in the UKERC project I work on has identified the key UK models that inform energy policy, which include E3ME (Cambridge Econometrics) and MARKAL (UCL) - in addition to EDM (BEIS). We have good contacts with Cambridge Econometrics and UCL modellers, for example we are already collaborating with Cambridge Econometrics on the building of the MARCO-UK model. We would use these connections to discuss and identify how their models could be revised to include useful exergy and exergy efficiency into their model structure.

Second, the findings of the project will be of key benefit to UK energy and economic policy makers: i.e. new insights into the level of energy-GDP decoupling that may be achievable, and how this may translate into policy. We will showcase our results through our good links with BEIS and other agencies - e.g. the Committee for Climate Change. We will also produce a series of policy briefs tackling key energy-economy questions and policy responses. For example, the research may identify more clearly a large scale of UK energy rebound (from energy efficiency improvements being 'taken back' by the economy via increased energy use). Suggested policies (which will be tested in the modelling analysis) might include greater levels of energy taxation, to limit rebound. Our approach will be flexible, for example we may alternatively focus on how the project insights are relevant for current Government strategy: for example the desire to increase energy productivity - where our long term projections of energy efficiency trends will be highly relevant.

Thirdly, our research insights are intended to yield both UK and globally relevant insights. Key global non-academic beneficiaries are identified as 1. overseas government departments (for example the project team has connections in France and Portugal), and 2. intergovernmental agencies, for example the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA), and Eurostat. We have good connections at the University of Leeds (UoL) with both the IPCC (steering group member Professor John Barrett has worked as IPCC co-author) and the IEA (Professor Peter Taylor is also on the steering group and used to lead the IEA's Technology Perspective's team and remains well connected). We will utilise these contacts to present our results, highlighting the benefits of adopting an exergy-based approach and the implications for energy and emissions policy.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description 2019 Researchfish entry: in this first year of the Fellowship project (2018-19) the most significant non-academic output and impact related to the Efficiency blog post (see engagement activity) I wrote for Carbon brief, and was hosted there. following this, we have received several enquiries from BEIS to discuss the findings in relation to the Industrial Strategy and raising energy productivity - one aim of the Industrial Strategy. we will follow up shortly. the impact was therefore to raise awareness in policy-making circles of our research. 2020 Researchfish entry: As part of my fellowship work, based on my expertise and experience, have been invited to review the useful energy factors in the BEIS Energy Demand Model.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Title Data Associated with 'The Energy and Exergy of Light with Application to Societal Exergy Analysis' 
Description This data repository contains the R code used in this analysis, and one excel workbook containing: 1) sources of the lamps and weighting functions used in this analysis; and 2) blank sheets for entry of spectral power distribution and weighting function data by a user of the code. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/759/
 
Title Data associated with the Applied Energy article 'Moving from final to useful stage in energy-economy analysis: a critical assessment' 
Description This dataset enables to reproduce the work conducted in the Applied Energy article "Moving from final to useful stage in energy-economy analysis: a critical assessment". Input data are provided as a csv file; and R code to reproduce the causality tests and the aggregate production function modelling conducted in the paper are provided. In addition, the R code provided enables to reproduce all causality and aggregate production functions figures reported in the article. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/791/
 
Title Data associated with the Energies article 'Quantifying the Environmental Impacts of Cookstove Transitions: A Societal Exergy Analysis Based Model of Energy Consumption and Forest Stocks in Honduras' 
Description Data and calculations for the societal exergy analysis and forest stock model for Honduras See Sheet1 of HN_PSB_forecast_data_noIEA2.xlsx for Readme 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/693/
 
Title Datasets for Nature Energy journal article 'Estimation of global final stage energy-return-on-investment for fossil fuels with comparison to renewable energy sources' 
Description Datasets for Nature Energy journal article 'Estimation of global final stage energy-return-on-investment for fossil fuels with comparison to renewable energy sources'. The dataset contains the three concordance matrices (A,B,C) in a single Excel File used in the EXIOBASE-based EROI calculations. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/544/
 
Title Datasets for the Biophysical Economics and Sustainability (BERQ) journal article entitled "A Net Energy Analysis of Global Agriculture, Aquaculture, Fishing and Forestry" 
Description Datasets for the Biophysical Economics and Sustainability (BERQ) journal article entitled "A Net Energy Analysis of Global Agriculture, Aquaculture, Fishing and Forestry" 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/698
 
Title Empirical datasets for Applied Energy journal article "Meeting 2030 primary energy and economic growth goals: Mission impossible?" 
Description Empirical datasets for Applied Energy journal article "Meeting 2030 primary energy and economic growth goals: Mission impossible?" 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/499/
 
Title Empirical datasets for Energy and Built Environment journal article 'Decomposing the drivers of residential space cooling energy consumption in EU-28 countries using a panel data approach' 
Description This dataset includes the empirical datasets for the Energy and Built Environment journal article: Andreas Andreou, John Barrett, Peter G. Taylor, Paul E. Brockway, Zia Wadud, Decomposing the drivers of residential space cooling energy consumption in EU-28 countries using a panel data approach, Energy and Built Environment (2020) doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enbenv.2020.03.005 This data set contains one Excel file, two R software scripts and a supporting R data file. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset associated with academic paper, available for public download from University of Leeds data repository 
URL http://archive.researchdata.leeds.ac.uk/691/
 
Description "Insights from Exergy Economics: Evidence towards a large role of energy efficiency gains in economic growth". Virtual International Exergy Economics Workshop (VIEEW) 2020. June 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact i co-organized a virtual workshop in June 2021, with 40 participants, i gave a plenary talk
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://exergyeconomics.wordpress.com/events/2020-virtual-exergy-economics-workshop/
 
Description "Our illusory faith in energy efficiency to decouple energy-GDP" Virtual Presentation to University of Texas Energy Symposium, USA. Feb 2021. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk for UC Texas energy symposium, on my fellowship research. Follow up questions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nc4eW1_1GE
 
Description "Systematic Reviews: Experiences from recent Environmental Research Letters (ERL) decoupling papers". Presentation to University of Leeds Research group: Energy and Climate Change Mitigation (ECCM), Leeds, UK. May 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact internal research seminar, presenting experience of a systematic review paper process.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description "The decoupling illusion: Why our faith in energy efficiency to decouple energy-GDP may be misplaced" Presentation to University of Leeds Energy@Leeds Group, Leeds, UK. Sept 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact seminar talk within University of Leeds research group
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description 2018 - Organisation of Exergy-Economics Research Workshop, LIsbon, Portugal 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Co-organisor for 3 day exergy network research workshop, May 2018
40 academics attended from across EU and US
8 themes discussed, and working groups then set up to push forward collaborative research.
these outputs are now being presented at ESEE 2019 in Finland, June 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://exergyeconomics.wordpress.com/events/2018-exergy-economics-workshop/
 
Description Blog post for Carbon Brief 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Brockway, P.E., Sakai M., Barrett J., and Taylor P., Energy efficiency contributed 25% of UK economic growth since 1971. Blog post available at https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-energy-efficiency-contributed-25-percent-of-uk-economic-growth-since-1971

post-blog, we've had several queries from BEIS and will follow up in next months
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-energy-efficiency-contributed-25-percent-of-uk-economic-growth...
 
Description Interview for local news 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed on BBC Look North to discuss the future of UK's renewable energy, and that renewable power produced more electricity than fossil fuels for an entire quarter.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Research Presentation at ESEE 2019 in Turku, Finland, June 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact i presented several paper presentations at the European Society of Ecological Economics (ESEE) 2019 in June 2019, in Turku, Finland
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://esee2019turku.fi/
 
Description presentation and involvement at Net Zero UKERC workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact "Net zero modelling - challenge of decoupling energy and economic growth". Presentation at UKERC Net Zero Workshop, University of Central London (UCL), London. January 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description research seminar at University of Surrey masters course in Ecological Economics 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact "Could energetic constraints be slowing economic growth?" Presentation at University of Surrey, UK. February 2020
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description research visit and presentation in Oct 2019 to Universities in Spain: Barcelona and Valladolid 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact research visit and presentation in Oct 2019 to Universities in Spain: Barcelona and Valladolid
Title = "Energy efficiency as the engine of economic growth".
45 min presentation then Q+A from researchers
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019