A brief history of energy and how it affects our economy today
All companies depend on energy to help boost their bottom line. But can your business achieve growth without increasing emissions?
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Energy and growth have been linked for hundreds of years – and particularly since the industrial revolution, which massively increased the need for it. As our society’s become wealthier, the demand for more products and services has increased and fueled the demand for energy too.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the mills and factories that helped the UK grow were predominantly powered by coal – as were the trains carrying the goods. It’s no coincidence that countries without easily-accessible coal didn’t prosper in the first industrial revolution.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, oil, gas and electricity have enabled factories in the US, the People’s Republic of China and parts of Asia to compete with and surpass the UK.
Although they’d moved away from coal, their growth still depended on fossil fuels. And their rising requirement for energy had the side-effect of increasing their carbon emissions. In short, the most powerful economies consumed the most energy - and produced the highest emissions.
This connection between economic growth, rising energy use and increasing energy-related emissions continued until at least 2013. Since then, emissions flattened off – for the first time since the industrial revolution.
So, less than a decade ago, it became possible to contemplate economic growth without increased carbon emissions – even though it required more energy. While this trend didn’t last, it did demonstrate a way towards a prosperous and zero carbon future.
According to the International Energy Agency, global energy use in 2018 increased by almost twice the average rate of growth since 2010. And while solar and wind power demand continued to grow, carbon dioxide emissions grew by 1.7% globally, hitting a new record level of 33.1 gigatonnes.
As in the period up to 2015, the majority of this rise in emissions was driven by the demands of a growing global economy (3.7% in 2018). The USA, China and India were responsible for a large proportion of the emissions increase.
In Europe, another trend’s emerged. While the economy grew by 1.8%, energy demand expanded by just 0.2% - although it fell in Germany and increased only moderately in the UK and France.
These changes are mainly due to improvements in energy efficiency and a significant increase in the use of renewable power in Europe. What’s more, these results strengthen the argument for sufficient investment in renewables and continued improvement in energy efficiency around the world.
There’s even a possibility of producing energy that’s carbon-negative – as the industrial scale carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) trial at Drax power station aims to prove. This opens up the tantalising prospect of a world with a growing economy, and carbon emissions of less than zero.
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