Climatic Change

, Volume 104, Issue 3–4, pp 437–455 | Cite as

Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?

  • Timothy J. GarrettEmail author
Open Access


Global Circulation Models (GCMs) provide projections for future climate warming using a wide variety of highly sophisticated anthropogenic CO2 emissions scenarios as input, each based on the evolution of four emissions “drivers”: population p, standard of living g, energy productivity (or efficiency) f and energy carbonization c (IPCC WG III 2007). The range of scenarios considered is extremely broad, however, and this is a primary source of forecast uncertainty (Stott and Kettleborough, Nature 416:723–725, 2002). Here, it is shown both theoretically and observationally how the evolution of the human system can be considered from a surprisingly simple thermodynamic perspective in which it is unnecessary to explicitly model two of the emissions drivers: population and standard of living. Specifically, the human system grows through a self-perpetuating feedback loop in which the consumption rate of primary energy resources stays tied to the historical accumulation of global economic production—or p×g—through a time-independent factor of 9.7±0.3 mW per inflation-adjusted 1990 US dollar. This important constraint, and the fact that f and c have historically varied rather slowly, points towards substantially narrowed visions of future emissions scenarios for implementation in GCMs.


Purchase Power Parity Heat Engine Primary Energy Consumption Emission Growth Market Exchange Rate 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Alcott B (2005) Jevons’ paradox. Ecol Econ 54:9–21. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.03.020 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Annual Energy Review (2006) Tech. Rep. DOE/EIA-0384(2006). Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration.
  3. Ayres RU, Ayres LW, Warr B (2003) Exergy, power and work in the US economy, 1900–1998. Energy 28:219–273. doi: 10.1016/S0360-5442(02)00089-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bettencourt LMA, Lobo J, Helbing D, Kühnert C, West GB (2007) Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104:7301–7306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brookes LG (1990) The greenhouse effect: the fallacies in the energy efficiency solution. Energy Policy 18:199–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. de Groot SR, Mazur P (1984) Non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Courier Dover, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Dimitropoulos J (2007) Energy productivity improvements and the rebound effect: an overview of the state of knowledge. Energy Policy 35:6354–6363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Georgescu-Roegen N (1993) Valuing the Earth: economics, ecology, ethics, chap. The entropy law and the economic problem. MIT, Cambridge, pp 75–88Google Scholar
  9. Herring H, Roy R (2007) Technological innovation, energy efficiency design and the rebound effect. Technovation 27:194–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. IPCC WG III (2007) Climate change 2007: mitigation of climate change. In: Metz B, Davidson OR, Bosch PR, Dave R, Meyer LA (eds) Contribution of working group III to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USAGoogle Scholar
  11. Jevons WS (1865) The coal question. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Job G, Hermann F (2006) Chemical potential—A quantity in search of recognition. Eur J Phys 27:353–371. doi: 10.1088/0143-0807/27/2/018 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Khazzoom JD (1980) Economic implications of mandated efficiency in standards for household appliances. Energy J 1:21–40Google Scholar
  14. Kleidon A (2004) Beyond Gaia: thermodynamics of life and earth system functioning. Clim Change 66:271–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Maddison A (2003) The world economy: historical statistics. OECDGoogle Scholar
  16. Marland G, Boden TA, Andres RJ (2007) Trends: a compendium of data on global change, chap. Global, regional, and national CO2 emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak RidgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Montieth JL (2000) Fundamental equations for growth in uniform stands of vegetation. Agric For Meteorol 104:5–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Nakicenovic N (2004) Socioeconomic driving forces of emissions scenarios. In: Field CB, Raupach MR (eds) The global carbon cycle. Island, Montague, pp 225–239Google Scholar
  19. Pacala S, Socolow R (2004) Stabilization wedges: solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science 305:968–972. doi: 10.1126/science.1100103 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Pielke R Jr, Wigley T, Green C (2008) Dangerous assumptions. Nature 452:531–532CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Polimeni JM, Iorgulescu Polimeni R (2006) Jevon’s paradox and the myth of technological liberation. Ecol Complex 3:344–353. doi: 10.1016/j.ecocom.2007.02.008 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pruppacher HR, Klett JD (1997) Microphysics of clouds and precipitation, 2nd rev. edn. Kluwer Academic, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  23. Raupach MR, Marland G, Ciais P, Le Quéré C, Canadell JG, Klepper G, Field C (2007) Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0700609104 Google Scholar
  24. Saunders HD (1992) The Khazzoom-Brookes postulate and neoclassical growth. Energy J 13:131–148Google Scholar
  25. Saunders HD (2000) A view from the macro side: rebound, backfire, and Khazzoom-Brookes. Energy Policy 28:439–449CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Schrödinger E (1944) What is life? The physical aspect of the living cell. The University Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  27. Solow RM (1957) Technical change and the aggregate production function. Rev Econ Stat 39:312–320CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Sorrell S (2007) The rebound effect. Tech. rep., UKERCGoogle Scholar
  29. Stott PA, Kettleborough JA (2002) Origins and estimates of uncertainty in predictions of twenty-first century temperature rise. Nature 416:723–725CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Thornley JT, Johnson IR (1990) Plant and crop modelling. Clarendon Press, ClarendonGoogle Scholar
  31. Trenberth KE (1981) Seasonal variations in global sea level pressure and the total mass of the atmosphere. J Geophys Res 86:5238–5246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. United Nations (2007) United Nations statistical databases.
  33. Vermeij G (1995) Economics, volcanoes, and Phanerozoic revolutions. Paleobiology 21:125–152Google Scholar
  34. Vermeij GJ (2004) Nature: an economic history. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  35. Zemanksy MW, Dittman RH (1997) Heat and thermodynamics, 7th edn. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA

Personalised recommendations