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Study finds energy limits global economic growth

Researchers use macroecology to establish correlations across countries and over time

A study that relates global energy use to economic growth, published in the January issue of BioScience, finds strong correlations between these two measures both among countries and within countries over time.

The research leads the study's authors to infer that energy use limits economic activity directly. They conclude that an "enormous" increase in energy supply will be required to meet the demands of projected world population growth and lift the developing world out of poverty without jeopardizing standards of living in most developed countries.

The study, which used a macroecological approach, was based on data from the International Energy Agency and the World Resources Institute. It was conducted by a team of ecologists led by James H. Brown of the University of New Mexico. The team found the same sort of relationship between energy consumption per person and gross domestic product per person as is found between metabolism and body weight in animals. Brown's group suggests the similarity is real: cities and countries, like animals, have metabolisms that must burn fuel to sustain themselves and grow. This analogy, together with the data and theory, persuades the BioScience authors that the linkage between energy use and economic activity is causal, although other factors must also be in play to explain the variability in the data.

The study goes on to show that variables relating to standard of living, such as the proportion of doctors in a population, the number of televisions per person, and infant mortality rate, are also correlated with both energy consumption per person and gross domestic product per person. These correlations lead the authors to their conclusions about the increases in energy production necessary to sustain a still-growing world population without drops in living standards. To support the expected world population in 2050 in the current US lifestyle would require 16 times the current global energy use, for example. Noting that 85 percent of humankind's energy now comes from fossil fuels, the BioScience authors point out that efforts to develop alternative energy sources face economic problems of diminishing returns, and reject the view of many economists that technological innovation can circumvent resource shortages.

After noon EST on 7 January and for the remainder of the month, the full text of the article will be available for free download through the copy of this Press Release available at

BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). BioScience publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles covering a wide range of biological fields, with a focus on "Organisms from Molecules to the Environment." The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents some 200 member societies and organizations with a combined membership of about 250,000.

The complete list of peer-reviewed articles in the January 2011 issue of BioScience is as follows:

Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. James H. Brown and colleagues.

Up in the Clouds: Is Sustainable Use of Tropical Montane Cloud Forests Possible in Malaysia? Kelvin S. H. Peh, Malcolm C. K. Soh, Navjot S. Sodhi, William F. Laurance, Dylan Jeffri Ong, and Reuben Clements

What Does It Mean to Successfully Conserve a (Vertebrate) Species? Kent H. Redford and colleagues

Biodiversity and Conservation of Tropical Peat Swamp Forests. Mary Rose C. Posa, Lahiru S. Wijedasa , and Richard T. Corlett

Recovery Plan for the Endangered Taxonomy Profession. David L. Pearson, Andrew L. Hamilton, and Terry L. Erwin

College Students' Understanding of the Carbon Cycle: Contrasting Principle-based and Informal Reasoning. Laurel M. Hartley, Brook J. Wilke, Jonathon W. Schramm, Charlene D'Avanzo, and Charles W. Anderson.

Tim Beardsley | EurekAlert!
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