But there has to be something wrong with this idea, because it is just not happening, at least at the global scale. Just take a look at this image:
Note how closely related the GDP and the world’s energy consumption are. It is impressive because the GDP is measured in terms of money flows. So it seems that money, although not a measure of power in itself, is a proxy for power. The idea that “money is power” doesn’t seem to be just a metaphor.
Now, by carefully looking at the curve, we could say that we have been doing a little better in recent years. That is, we seem to have been able to produce a little more GDP for the same amount of energy. But there are two problems: the first that the divergence we see today is not larger than anything we have seen during the past 50 years. The second that this is NOT decoupling as it is normally defined, that is, the ability to grow the economy (the GDP) while at the same time consuming less energy.
Of course, we may argue about the definition of decoupling, but nothing else but a complete inversion of the current trend would allow us to keep growing while, at the same time, avoiding the double challenge of climate change and of mineral depletion. But if that were happening, you would see the little circles in the graph completely change the slope of the curve, forming a kind of “hockey stick” shaped curve. That’s not the case, obviously.
Actually, if you really eyeball the curve, you can see a small hockey stick that occurs at points 14-16. These points correspond to 1979-1981, a historical phase of reduced energy production during the most difficult moment of the great “oil crisis.” For about three years, at that time, we had true decoupling, but it was hardly something pleasant or that we would want to repeat today in the same terms.
In the end, society needs energy to function and the idea that we can do more with less with the help of better technologies seems to be just an illusion. If we reduce energy consumption, we’ll most likely enter a phase of economic decline. Which might not be a bad thing if we were able to manage it well. Maybe. Calling this “a challenge” seems to be a true euphemism, if ever there was one. But, who knows? Happy 2018, everybody!
Further notes: all the above is at the global level for the total (primary) energy production. It doesn’t mean that some kind of decoupling can’t be obtained at the regional level or for some specific kinds of sources. So, let’s take a look first at the regional level: