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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Can We Use Less Energy And Still Be Happy?

  • Balancing climate change goals and growing energy demand is proving to be a complex task, but the solution might just be as simple as consuming less energy.
  • In the United States, the average resident consumes 284 gigajoules of energy per year, three and a half times higher than the global average.
  • “People in countries like the U.S. are starting to ask what all this extra stuff filling our lives gets us. The answer appears to be very little, perhaps nothing.”
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Much ink has been spilled over how much energy consumption is going to grow in coming years as the global population expands, more people in rural areas and developing countries gain increasing access to the energy grid, and expanding middle classes in places like China and India begin to demand more energy. The question is how to balance this expanding energy demand and consumption with the imperative to decarbonize the global economy rapidly enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  It’s a complex question, and one that has been the source of repeated contention in global policy spaces such as last year’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. While developed countries are pushing for a hasty and coordinated pivot away from coal, for example, developing countries are crying foul. Why should Africa, which contributes just 2-3 % of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources, have to limit its economic and industrial development to atone for the developed world’s sins? Allowing the world to meet its decarbonization goals without limiting poorer nations’ capacity to develop their economies and improve livelihoods is going to be a delicate process that will require multiple approaches and unprecedented global cooperation. 

Solving this puzzle will require rapid expansion of clean and renewable energies, along with continued advances in technology to make these forms of energy production more efficient, affordable, and scalable. It will also involve an enormous rollout of energy infrastructure to support the adoption of more renewable energies on a grand scale, from installing smart grids to investing in massive energy storage projects, to piping solar energy across the bottom of the Pacific Ocean from sunny rural areas to energy-thirsty urban areas on the other side of the world.

Related: Is Global Oil Production Growing Fast Enough?

But there’s another approach that’s just as important, if infinitely less sexy to the venture-capital-happy Silicon Valley crowd. The world’s use of energy needs to become much, much more efficient, and in the developed world, our energy use per capita needs to shrink. By a lot. In fact, a new study from Stanford University in California finds that the 79 gigajoules per person per year that is currently being consumed on a global scale, would be more than sufficient to give every person on the planet a comfortable life, if consumption patterns were more evenly distributed. 

In the United States, the average resident consumes 284 gigajoules of energy per year, three and a half times higher than the global average and about four times higher than what the Stanford team deems necessary for a good and healthy life. Reducing the per capita energy footprint in countries like the United States could be an efficient, cost-effective, and relatively easy way to keep global energy use within the bounds of decarbonization goals while still enabling people in the U.S. and worldwide to maintain or establish a high quality of life. 

“Energy use and consumption per person have risen even faster globally than population growth,” lead writer Rob Jackson, professor of Earth System Science at Stanford, was quoted by Anthropocene

“People in countries like the U.S. are starting to ask what all this extra stuff filling our lives gets us. The answer appears to be very little, perhaps nothing.”

The Stanford study found this baseline number for a good and healthy life (75 gigajoules per person per year) by analyzing energy-use data for 140 countries from 1971 to 2018, and cross-referencing these findings with 9 indicators of wellbeing, including  life expectancy, infant mortality, food supply, access to sanitation services, access to electricity, and more difficult-to-gauge metrics such as happiness and prosperity. The result is clear: we can be using much, much less energy and still be happy – all while ensuring that the next generation, no matter what part of the world they happen to be born in, can have a chance at happiness and health too. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on April 29 2022 said:
    I agree quite a bit with the idea that, per capita, the developed world could use a lot less energy and still be happy. Some countries see it that way. The U.S. still thinks more is better. I am discouraged looking at the censorship taking place in U.S. schools. Given our political climate, I do not believe we can advance as an informed society.

    So, is is high fuel prices that will tell the tale, combined with the rich paying an increasing share in taxes.

    Something has to give. I sense that we are at a point where we will sense that we are at a precipice. More stuff and wasteful burning of fossil fuel has run its course.

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