Human population and atmospheric carbon dioxide growth dynamics: Diagnostics for the future

Research paper by A.D. Hüsler, D. Sornette

Indexed on: 24 Oct '14Published on: 24 Oct '14Published in: The European Physical Journal Special Topics


We analyze the growth rates of human population and of atmospheric carbon dioxide by comparing the relative merits of two benchmark models, the exponential law and the finite-time-singular (FTS) power law. The later results from positive feedbacks, either direct or mediated by other dynamical variables, as shown in our presentation of a simple endogenous macroeconomic dynamical growth model describing the growth dynamics of coupled processes involving human population (labor in economic terms), capital and technology (proxies by CO2 emissions). Human population in the context of our energy intensive economies constitutes arguably the most important underlying driving variable of the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Using some of the best databases available, we perform empirical analyses confirming that the human population on Earth has been growing super-exponentially until the mid-1960s, followed by a decelerated sub-exponential growth, with a tendency to plateau at just an exponential growth in the last decade with an average growth rate of 1.0% per year. In contrast, we find that the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to accelerate super-exponentially until 1990, with a transition to a progressive deceleration since then, with an average growth rate of approximately 2% per year in the last decade. To go back to CO2 atmosphere contents equal to or smaller than the level of 1990 as has been the broadly advertised goals of international treaties since 1990 requires herculean changes: from a dynamical point of view, the approximately exponential growth must not only turn to negative acceleration but also negative velocity to reverse the trend.