Making Better Energy Choices

Global Energy Use Trends
Energy That Moves Us
Energy Where We Live and Work
Energy in Everything We Buy
Policy and Choice

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Global Energy Use Trends

“Everything we consume or use—our homes, their contents, our cars and the roads we travel, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat—requires energy to produce and package, to distribute to shops or front doors, to operate, and then to get rid of.”

The energy required to support our economies and lifestyles provides tremendous convenience and benefits. But it also exacts enormous costs on human health, ecosystems, and even security. Energy consumption affects everything from a nation’s foreign debt to the stability of the Middle East, from the air we breathe to the water we drink,

The energy intensity—that is, the energy input per dollar of output—of the global economy is declining, and recent decades have seen continuing improvements in energy efficiency. Yet these encouraging developments are being offset by an ever-increasing level of consumption worldwide. Between 1850 and 1970, the number of people living on Earth more than tripled—yet the energy they consumed rose 12-fold. By 2002, human numbers had grown another 68 percent and fossil fuel consumption was up another 73 percent.

Most surprising is the dramatic surge in energy use in many industrial countries. Compared with just 10 years ago, for example, Americans are driving larger and less efficient cars and buying bigger homes and more appliances. As a result, U.S. oil use has increased over the decade by nearly 2.7 million barrels a day—more oil than is used daily in total in India and Pakistan, which together contain more than four times as many people as the United States does. In total, the average American consumes five times more energy than the average global citizen, 10 times more than the average Chinese, and nearly 20 times more than the average Indian.

Yet energy consumption is rising fastest in the developing world, where petroleum use alone has quadrupled since 1970. China is already the world’s number one coal consumer and the third largest oil user, while Brazil is the sixth largest oil consumer. Current trends in global energy use simply cannot be sustained: if the average Chinese consumer used as much oil as the average American uses, China would require 90 million barrels per day—11 million more than the entire world produced each day in 2001.

Through taxes and subsidies, regulations and standards, and investments in infrastructure, governments influence how, where, how much, and what form of energy we use. But we as consumers are not powerless bystanders. Ultimately, it is consumers who choose what to buy and how to use it, and thus it is consumers who can drive change.


 

Energy That Moves Us

“…increased mobility of people and property has had profound impacts, altering everything from work to family to the nature and design of our cities.”

Today, transportation is the world’s fastest-growing form of energy use, accounting for nearly 30 percent of world energy use and 95 percent of global oil consumption. Even relatively small shifts in transport choices have significant impacts. Only 0.5 percent of the total distance people travel each year is done by air, yet planes use up about 5 percent of transportation energy.

But the most significant driver of rising energy consumption for transportation is growing reliance on the private car. Some 40.6 million passenger vehicles rolled off the world’s assembly lines in 2002, five times as many as in 1950. The global passenger car fleet now exceeds 531 million, growing by about 11 million vehicles annually. About one fourth of those cars are found on U.S. roads, where cars and light trucks account for 40 percent of the nation’s oil use and contribute about as much to climate change as all economic activity in Japan does. The total distance traveled by Americans exceeds that of all other industrial nations combined.

In contrast, many countries have devoted significant resources to public transport while discouraging the use of private vehicles. In Japan and Europe, much of the investment in transportation infrastructure after World War II focused on passenger trains and transit systems. Today nearly 92 percent of downtown Tokyo travelers commute by rail, and the Japanese do only 55 percent of their traveling by car. West Europeans now use public transit for 10 percent of all urban trips, and Canadians for 7 percent, compared with Americans at only 2 percent.

“Congestion charges” on vehicles entering city centers, combined with investments in public transit, have also reduced car use and pollution. In London, in response to a toll enacted in early 2003, traffic levels dropped by an average of 16 percent in the first few months, and most former car users began commuting by public transit.


 

Energy Where We Live and Work

“Because many buildings stand for at least 50–100 years—and some last for centuries—it is essential to get them right the first time.”

Worldwide, people use about a third of all energy in buildings—for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, and running appliances. Building-related energy demand is rising rapidly, particularly within our homes. But there are large differences in household energy use from one country to the next: for example, people in the United States and Canada consume 2.4 times as much energy at home as those in Western Europe.

Although perhaps one fourth of the world’s inhabitants have inadequate shelter or no house at all, for many other people home sizes are expanding even as the number of people per household shrinks. The United States represents the extreme case, where average new homes grew nearly 38 percent between 1975 and 2000, to 210 square meters (2,265 square feet)—twice the size of typical homes in Europe or Japan and 26 times the living space of the average person in Africa.

As homes become bigger, each individual house has more space to heat, cool, and light, as well as room for bigger and more appliances. Home appliances are the world’s fastest-growing energy consumers after automobiles, accounting for 30 percent of industrial countries’ electricity consumption and 12 percent of their greenhouse gas emissions. In developing countries, meanwhile, the potential for appliance growth is enormous: sales of frost-free refrigerators in India alone are projected to grow nearly 14 percent annually.

Yet the same needs could be met with far less energy. Technologies available today could advance appliance efficiency by at least an additional 33 percent over the next decade, and further improvements in dryers, televisions, lighting, and standby power consumption could avoid more than half of projected consumption growth in the industrial world by 2030. In developing countries, people could save as much as 75 percent of their energy through improvements in building insulation, cooking, heating, lighting, and electrical appliances.


 

Energy in Everything We Buy

“Energy use in manufacturing is rising as we buy and use more and more stuff.”

Everything we use has associated and compounding energy inputs, and the largest share of global energy consumption goes into producing our vehicles, appliances, buildings, and even our clothes and food. By some estimates, people can live in a typical house for 10 years before the energy they use in it exceeds what went into its components—steel beams, cement foundation, window glass and frames, tile floors and carpeting, drywall, wood paneling, or stairs—and its construction.

Large amounts of energy are also required to assemble our automobiles, construct and operate the manufacturing plants, and fabricate the various inputs that make up a car—from steel and plastic to glass and rubber. But the largest share of energy use associated with vehicles is driving them. Petroleum refining is one of the world’s most energy-demanding industries, and the most energy-intensive in the United States. In 1998, petroleum refining accounted for 8 percent of total U.S. energy consumption

Producing our food also requires massive amounts of energy. While much comes from the sun, nearly 21 percent of the fossil energy we use goes into the global food system. David Pimentel of Cornell University estimates that the United States devotes about 17 percent of its fossil fuel consumption to the production and consumption of food: 6 percent for crop and livestock production, 6 percent for processing and packaging, and 5 percent for distribution and cooking.

There are extreme differences in the energy intensity of manufacturing industries from one country to another. In the early 1990s, the Japanese and Germans used less than half as much energy per unit of output in their heavy industries as Canadians and Americans did, due primarily to differences in energy prices. Japan, South Korea, and countries in Western Europe have the most efficient manufacturing sectors, whereas developing countries, the former Soviet bloc, and a few industrial countries—particularly the United States and Australia—have the least efficient.

Many consumers have already saved large amounts of energy by recycling and by purchasing recycled materials rather than relying on virgin resources. Producing aluminum from recycled material, for example, requires 95 percent less energy than manufacturing it from raw materials would.


 

Policy and Choice

“The amount and type of energy we consume is a result of two kinds of choices: those we make as a society and those we make as individuals and families.”

Through subsidies, taxes, standards, and other measures, government policies have a direct impact on energy supplies, demand, and the efficiency of our homes, appliances, cars, and factories. In Denmark, where the tax on auto registrations exceeds a car’s retail price, and where rail and bike infrastructure are well developed, more than 30 percent of families do not even own cars. And where governments or companies subsidize public transit, people are more apt to commute by bus or subway than by car.

Government policies affecting the price of energy are among the most important, as energy prices are among the fundamental factors determining a nation’s energy intensity. Countries with higher energy prices—like Japan and Germany—also have lower energy intensities, while those with lower prices are generally quite energy-intensive, such as the United States for gas and oil, Australia for coal, and Scandinavia for electricity.

Political will and effective, appropriate policies are essential for driving change. But it is also up to us as individuals—both as consumers and as members of diverse communities—to recognize the links between our consumption choices and the impacts we have on the world around us. Unfortunately, more and more consumers are choosing larger appliances, bigger homes, and tank-like vehicles for single-person trips on urban roads to malls or hypermarkets.

As a counterbalance, though not a large one, other consumers are purchasing efficient hybrid cars, choosing locally grown produce, installing photovoltaics, and buying green power. By the end of 2002, more than 980 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity had been added to meet the demand of green power customers in the United States, and another 430 megawatts were planned or under construction. Through these and other measures, we can begin to come to grips with the limits we face and change the way we use energy.

 

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