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Applying thermodynamic laws to the energy-GDP decoupling problem – gaining new insights into energy-economy linkages

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  • Full or part time
    Dr P Brockway
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Governments have two conflicting desires relating to energy and economic growth. On the one hand is the desire to constrain future energy consumption - largely through energy efficiency - to meet energy and climate targets. On the other hand they also wish to see substantial economic growth, to improve citizen well-being. Such decoupling of energy and economic output (GDP) is also included in the energy-economy models which assess how we will meet our Paris climate targets.
However, despite decades of energy efficiency policies and investment, there is no historical precedent for significant energy-GDP decoupling at a global scale. The simple truth is that energy and GDP have been tied very tightly together, yet we rely somehow on breaking this coupling in the future. This is the nub of the energy-GDP decoupling problem. Given the urgency of needing to meet Paris climate goals, new insights and methods are required to unlock how energy-GDP decoupling can, if at all, be achieved.
The EPSRC funded Fellowship project “Applying thermodynamic laws to the energy-GDP decoupling problem” takes a novel, thermodynamic-based approach to examine the energy-GDP decoupling problem, using exergy analysis. Exergy is ‘energy available for work’, and meets both the first (conservation of energy) and second (energy cannot be converted completely into work) laws of thermodynamics. Three Work Packages (WPs) are planned:
• WP1 - The construction of a global primary-final-useful (GPFU) energy database from 1960-2017, that uniquely also aligns to the country-level structure of the EXIOBASE multi-regional input-output (MRIO) model.
• WP2 – Gaining new insights to the energy-GDP decoupling problem, using a range of possible quantitative approaches, including stock-flow consistent modelling, decomposition analysis, MRIO analysis, econometric techniques, and aggregate production functions. Three key research questions are currently proposed:
1. What is the relationship between energy efficiency and energy rebound?
2. How much primary energy will we need in the future to meet our energy service demands?
3. To what extent can we decouple primary energy use from GDP?
• WP3 – Delivering impact from the project: across academic, modelling and policy spaces.
Summary of this PhD project
The PhD project relates to the delivery of the overarching Fellowship project, outlined above. It would be likely that the successful candidate would largely work across quantitative areas in WP1 and WP2, though the ability to assist on the WP3 impact-related activities will be a good opportunity to gain wider experience.
There are many possible routes and topics open to you, given the project is very broad in its remit. For example, you may have a keen interest in building, developing and testing the most sophisticated PFU energy database in the world (WP1), and linking to the EXIOBASE model to study flows of energy between countries. Or your interest may be on the research questions in WP2, utilising for example utilising our Leeds-based econometric model (MARCO-UK), or production functions to study how thermodynamic energy efficiency interacts with energy use and economic activity. There is also the chance to tackle some theoretical / conceptual aspects, for example to take on the conventional mantra that economic growth is a desirable future goal, e.g. by outlining how it may be possible to provide the energy services that we need without the need for economic growth at all.
These are just some examples. It is likely your work will touch on many aspects of the fellowship project, in order to give you a broad-ranging experience that provides real depth and breadth of topic(s) for your PhD thesis. In addition, it is envisaged that you would be able to contribute as lead/co-author to several journal papers during your PhD study.
We would therefore be interested to hear of your own views and interests related to this topic, so that we can find a suitable PhD-sized space within the overall fellowship project. Significant flexibility for research will be given, under the overarching project theme.

Funding Notes

The fully-funded 3 year PhD is available to UK/EU candidates only. The funding includes tuition fees (£4,400 for 2018/19) and provides a tax-free stipend (£14,777 for 2018/19) and research training and support grant for research travel to meetings/workshops and to present/attend at research conferences.


• Ayres RU, Warr B. Accounting for growth: the role of physical work. Structural Change and Economic Dynamics. 2005;16:181–209.
• Brockway PE, Barrett JR, Foxon TJ, Steinberger JK. Divergence of trends in US and UK aggregate exergy efficiencies 1960-2010. Environmental Science & Technology. 2014;48:9874−9881.
• Brockway PE, Steinberger JK, Barrett JR, Foxon TJ. Understanding China’s past and future energy demand: An exergy efficiency and decomposition analysis. Applied Energy. Elsevier Ltd; 2015;155:892–903.
• Brockway PE, Saunders H, Heun MK, et al. Energy Rebound as a Potential Threat to a Low-Carbon Future: Findings from a New Exergy-Based National-Level Rebound Approach. Energies. 2017;10(51):1–24.
• Grubler, A., Wilson, C., Bento et. al. (2018). A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy, 3(June), 515–527.
• Heun, M. K., Owen, A., & Brockway, P. E. (2018). A physical supply-use table framework for energy analysis on the energy conversion chain. Applied Energy, 226, 1134–1162.
• Kalimeris, P., Richardson, C., & Bithas, K. (2014). A meta-analysis investigation of the direction of the energy-GDP causal relationship: implications for the growth-degrowth dialogue. Journal of Cleaner Production, 67, 1–13.
• Santos J, Domingos T, Sousa T, St. Aubyn M. Useful Exergy Is Key in Obtaining Plausible Aggregate Production Functions and Recognizing the Role of Energy in Economic Growth: Portugal 1960–2009. Ecological Economics. Elsevier; 2018;148(January):103–20.
• Warr B, Ayres RU. Useful work and information as drivers of economic growth. Ecological Economics. Elsevier B.V.; 2012 Jan;73:93–102.

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