Sustainability Science, April 25, 2015, 1–15. doi:10.1007/s11625-015-0299-3. (Accepted Author Manuscript available here).
Growing scientific evidence shows that world energy resources are entering a period shaped by the depletion of high-quality fuels, whilst the decline of the easy-to-extract oil is a widely recognized ongoing phenomenon. The end of the era of cheap and abundant energy flows brings the issue of economic growth into question, stimulating research for alternatives as the de-growth proposal. The present paper applies the system dynamic global model WoLiM that allows economic, energy and climate dynamics to be analyzed in an integrated way. The results show that, if the growth paradigm is maintained, the decrease in fossil fuel extraction can only be partially compensated by renewable energies, alternative policies and efficiency improvements, very likely causing systemic energy shortage in the next decades. If a massive transition to coal would be promoted to try to compensate the decline of oil and gas and maintain economic growth, the climate would be then very deeply disturbed. The results suggest that growth and globalization scenarios are, not only undesirable from the environmental point of view, but also not feasible. Furthermore, regionalization scenarios without abandoning the current growth GDP focus would set the grounds for a pessimistic panorama from the point of view of peace, democracy and equity. In this sense, an organized material de-growth in the North followed by a steady state shows up as a valid framework to achieve global future human welfare and sustainability. The exercise qualitatively illustrates the magnitude of the challenge: the most industrialized countries should reduce, on average, their per capita primary energy use rate at least four times and decrease their per capita GDP to roughly present global average levels. Differently from the current dominant perceptions, these consumption reductions might actually be welfare enhancing. However, the attainment of these targets would require deep structural changes in the socioeconomic systems in combination with a radical shift in geopolitical relationships.