Energy for Planet Earth – 30 years on – emissions intensity (Part Three)


In September 1990, Scientific American published a special issue entitled ‘Energy for Planet Earth’. In this publication, Scientific American explored the sources of energy, the future for energy, made predictions on technological breakthroughs and suggested solutions for what they considered was an imminent energy crisis.

Many of these predictions by Scientific American were made for 2020. Given we have reached that date, we can look back and compare the predictions with what actually happened. In a three-part series, Frontier Economics compares actual outcomes to 2020 with the predictions made by Scientific American.

This comparison of actual versus predicted outcomes, especially where technological change is involved, can help us learn about the factors that have been determinative to the global community and provide guidance on how we can improve economic forecasts.

We focus on three areas where Scientific American made long term forecasts:

This is the third and final part of this series, examining the performance of Scientific American’s forecasts of emissions intensity.

Scientific American gets it right in Parts One and Two

In Part One – Energy demand we reviewed the performance of Scientific American’s long-term forecasts on primary energy demand. We found that, overall, Scientific American’s forecast was reasonably accurate. However, Scientific American did not perform as well on the growth performance by country. Most significantly, Scientific America materially underestimated the rapid and large increase in the growth of developing nations, such as China and India. That is, countries that were relatively poor in 1990 grew more quickly than expected, and they used energy to achieve this growth.

In Part Two – Energy intensity we reviewed the performance of Scientific American’s forecast of energy intensity. While Scientific American’s original historical depiction of energy intensity was stylised, it did accurately convey the historic profile of energy intensity – rising as countries develop, and then falling as economies mature. Given the size of the populations in developing countries in 1990, there was a genuine concern about the impact on energy demand (and resulting environmental problems) if these countries followed the same energy intensity profile as developed countries. However, Reddy and Goldemberg predicted that developing countries would benefit from improvements in materials science and energy efficiency innovations from developed nations. This technological transfer would avoid the high energy intensity peaks that occurred over the course of the previous 150 years of economic development of, now, developed economies. Reddy and Goldemberg were correct. The energy intensity of developing countries, while starting on the higher side of developed countries in 1990, quickly fell as they adopted the latest technologies. By 2015, developing countries had lower energy intensity than the developed countries originally analysed by Reddy and Goldemberg. In fact, by 2015, developing countries exceeded the most ambitious energy intensity decline forecast by Reddy and Goldemberg.

We conclude our three-part series by looking at Scientific America’s global projections for CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

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