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


Dr Paul Brockway and other supervisors as appropriate to the project that is finally agreed.

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.

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.

Contact Dr Paul Brockway for a pdf of this project to include a Suggested Readings list.

Key benefits

The PhD research will be undertaken as part of a larger project team: the core team at Leeds (Dr Paul Brockway as project lead, a 3 year post-doctoral researcher and this 3 year PhD), and a wider circle of in-kind collaboration, mainly from within the Exergy Economics Network. The project also has clear synergies with other projects also based in the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), for example the Living Well Within Limits (LiLi) project, and the Industrial theme of the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). The PhD candidate will be able to interact with researchers in these and other related projects.

For PhD guidance, you will typically have 2 or 3 supervisors, meeting monthly. In addition, there will be project team meetings, both internal and external. The Faculty of Environment at the University of Leeds encourages PhD dissertations by alternative format, encouraging the publication of PhD research in international peer-reviewed journals.

Entry requirements

UK undergraduate honours degree 2.1 (or equivalent) or higher.

If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University’s minimum English Language requirements.

How to apply

Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the university's website. Please state clearly in the research information section that the PhD you wish to be considered for is the ‘Applying thermodynamic laws to the energy-GDP decoupling problem – gaining new insights into energy-economy linkages' as well as Dr Paul Brockway as your proposed supervisor.

If you require any further information, please contact the Graduate School Office e:, or t: +44 (0)113 343 1634.

We welcome scholarship applications from all suitably-qualified candidates, but UK black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers are currently under-represented in our Postgraduate Research community, and we would therefore particularly encourage applications from UK BME candidates. All scholarships will be awarded on the basis of merit.