Economies are embedded in the biosphere. This was well understood by the founders of economics, especially Thomas Malthus, but has become neglected in mainstream economics, which presents the economic system as disconnected from the biosphere. Hence it is thought to be able to grow forever. Economic growth can be limited because of inadequate supplies of materials and energy, especially as the quantities required to sustain growth continue to increase. Advanced economies lack domestic supplies of some materials considered critical for the new technologies. Energy presents a special problem. Unlike materials, it cannot be recycled. Oil shortages remain a threat despite advances in extraction technologies. Greenhouse gases released from fossil fuel combustion are causing climate change and so economies must transition to renewable sources of energy. The difficulty of finding a transition path that generates sufficient net energy to support economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently fast is referred to as the ‘energy–emissions trap’.
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