World Population Grows Exponentially with Increased Energy Use

First Posted: Jul 27, 2015 09:23 AM EDT

How much power does the world consume each day? Scientists have taken a closer look to better understand the relationship between population growth and energy consumption over the past 50 years.

In this latest study, the researchers compiled several centuries' worth of data from Great Britain, the United States and Sweden to profile the dynamics between a growing population and its consumption of energy from fossil fuels and renewable sources. The scientists found that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years.

The researchers found that energy use has generally outpaced population growth over the last few hundred years. In fact, each generation has produced more energy per person than its predecessor.

"Broadly speaking, no one's really (quantified) this," said John DeLong, one of the researchers, in a news release. "But it was important, because there are studies going back decades that assume this kind of positive feedback loop: We grow, we expand our capacity to extract energy, and then we grow some more."

The increasing per capita energy supply has also increased the Earth's carrying capacity, which is the number of people it can sustain at equilibrium. In fact, this has allowed the population of people to grow at an exponential rate.

What's interesting is that the researchers found that the dynamic has shifted in the decades following 1963, when the world's population was growing faster than ever before or since. During the subsequent half-century, the ratio between energy increases and population growth has narrowed, with the former now aligning more closely to the latter. In fact, a 1:1 ratio would theoretically limit the planet's population to a linear rather than exponential growth rate.

"I do think this should challenge our assumptions about future population growth," said DeLong. "The study supports conventional wisdom to a degree, but it also reminds us that (abundant energy) is maybe not something that we can count on indefinitely."

The findings reveal a bit more about the connection between energy use and population growth. This, in turn, may help inform future studies.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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