9th December 2013
Gothenburg

Exploring the Future of Energy

Running to scissors: decoupling energy use and economic growth

The scissors open, as GDP and carbon emissions follow different tracks in Sweden. Based on data from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The scissors open, as GDP and carbon emissions follow different tracks in Sweden. Based on data from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

There was a metaphor that made a number of appearances at this year’s Nobel Week Dialog: opening scissors. To get the metaphor, you have to look at graphs. In the closed-scissors portion of things, two items remain linked, and run along the graph in parallel. In fact, the correlation has run so deeply into history that everybody assumes either that there’s a causal relationship between the two, and it’s impossible to separate them.

Then, the scissors open. Suddenly, one of the items starts tracking on a different trajectory, and the two show an increasing divergence. The scissors have been opened.

The host country, Sweden, provided two examples of this. One of these was the outcome of what was called “Vision Zero,” the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities. The country is still a long way off from this, but the initial efforts involved with Vision Zero have opened the scissors between traffic fatalities and miles travelled. Historically, the two have risen in parallel; now, in Sweden, they no longer do.

More directly relevant to energy has been the link between economic growth and energy use, and therefore with carbon dioxide emissions. In the US, those scissors were opened within the last few years, by a combination of a switch from coal to natural gas, greater energy efficiency, and a rise in renewable power (in order of importance). In Sweden, the scissors opened back in 1987; since then, the cumulative GDP growth has reached 60 percent, with greenhouse gas emissions remaining flat.

Sweden hasn’t had a shale gas revolution, which means that different factors contributed to opening the scissors. Which is good news, given that it means that neither country’s changes are likely to have been a freak occurrence, and there are more lessons here that might apply to more nations. And that, ultimately, is the goal. Although “opening scissors” was first used as a descriptive metaphor, before the day was over, speakers were using it as a verb, as something we had to accomplish.

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