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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Can We Live The Good Life With Less Energy?

Declarations of a climate emergency are the latest fad among world governments. Everyone wants to be in the cool crowd of those ready to save the planet with their own bare hands. Few, however, are asking the important question: Can we save the planet without depriving millions of people of a decent life?

And before you ask, no, your smartphone and laptop don’t fit into this “decent life”.

This is where climate change activists would normally present the argument that it is climate change that is threatening the livelihoods of not millions but hundreds of millions of people. This is a valid argument, but there is an equally valid one a bit far from the climate change activists’ camp.

That argument is that everyone on the planet deserves a decent life, and this decent life is enabled through energy use. 

So, the question is, ultimately, how much energy do we need for a decent life? Only through this answer will we be able to manage our energy consumption with a view to limiting the adverse effects of climate change on the planet.

As to how much energy is required to maintain a decent life, the answer is: less than you might expect, according to a new study. 

A team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria recently released a paper that looked into the energy use of three large developing economies to glean insight into how much energy people need to satisfy their basic needs.

On the face of it, the conclusions that the IIASA researchers came to were optimistic. What they found was that each of the three countries they focused on—Brazil, South Africa, and India—produced a lot more energy than their growing populations needed to satisfy their basic needs. Related: Is This The Future Of Solar?

"We didn't expect that the energy needs for a minimally decent life would be so modest, even for countries like India where large gaps exist. It was also a pleasant surprise that the most essential human needs related to health, nutrition, and education, are cheap in terms of energy. Along the way, we also found that measuring poverty in terms of these material deprivations far exceeds the World Bank's definition of income poverty," lead author Narasimha Rao said as quoted by Eurekalert.

Naturally, however, these conclusions are based on an assumption about what a minimally decent life consists of, and how many of us would be satisfied with this life. The answer to the latter is: not many. The problem with basic needs such as access to electricity, healthcare, and education is that they are just that: basic. And we humans like to build on basics rather than stay with them.

Practicality of this basic lifestyle aside, the research has its detractors. In early 2018, journalist Kris De Decker wrote an extensive piece on the topic of how much energy humans need and whether we can satisfy this need by less polluting, more economical means than we are suing now. It is probably one of the most exhaustive texts on the topic and it’s not all too optimistic.

One of the important facts De Decker notes—a fact that casts a shadow over the optimistic conclusions of the IIASA researchers—is that so-called energy poverty changes with time.

As De Decker puts it, “What is sufficient today is not necessarily sufficient tomorrow. For example, several consumer goods which did not exist in the 1980s, such as mobile phones, personal computers, and internet access, were seen as absolute necessities by 40-41% of the UK public in 2012.”

Chances are, what was true for the UK in 2012 is now true for a lot more countries, including Brazil, South Africa and India. There are also varying basic needs depending on geography: in cold climates people need more energy for heating. In hot climates they need more energy for air conditioning (where they can afford it. Where they can’t, they have the siesta).

Ultimately, however, the problem is that a lot of things that used to be luxury just a few decades ago we now perceive as a need, and a basic one at that. This makes calculations of exactly how much energy we need to satisfy our basic needs a lot more challenging. Related: Oil Soars Following U.S. Killing Of Iran’s Top General

What all research on the topic of energy use seems to agree on, however, is that it’s superconsumers of energy that are driving the world’s emissions higher despite the growing deployment of renewables. It is the mistaking of our wants for needs that is causing a lot of emissions that can be avoided. But how?

Through energy efficiency, says De Decker, leaning on research. Through governments investing in more public transport to get people out of their cars, building sustainable residential housing, and encouraging people to eat more sustainably, say the IIASA researchers.

While energy efficiency has already proved to be a working approach to the management of our energy consumption, the other suggestions are more wishful thinking than anything realistically applicable to any developing economy. 

The hard truth about humans is that the more we have, the more we want. It may be an evolutionary survival mechanism, or it might be wrong brain wiring but it is a fact and it might become the one insurmountable obstacle on our way out of frying the planet while se satisfy our wants, calling them needs.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 05 2020 said:
    Energy is the fundamental need of our everyday life. So much so, that the quality of life and even its sustenance, is dependent on the availability of energy.

    The demand for energy depends on many factors, namely, the standard of living, the weather, the size of population of a country and how economically advanced it is.

    One major flaw of the study by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria is that it based its research and conclusions on three developing countries of the world, namely, Brazil, India and South Africa, where energy needs would be far less for instance than those in more developed countries such as Europe, the United States, Japan and South Korea because of lower standards of living and relatively less economic and technological sophistication.

    The needs for energy are being accelerated by the breath-taking development of technology.

    The truth of the matter is that people living in countries with high standards of living are less inclined to lower their energy needs to help climate change while people with lower standards of living care far more for making their lives more satisfying than taking measures to mitigate the impact of climate change and this requires more energy.

    And whilst energy efficiency could play a vital role in reducing the global demand for energy, there is a limit how much it can achieve.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Lee James on January 05 2020 said:
    I've seen that attitudes about using less energy change and evolve, either up or down, depending. When using less was justified by power supply or oil shortages, the term in the 1970's and 80's was, "Conservation." It was wise to conserve until we figured out how to deal with an extra dose of energy challenge.

    We've had more consistent supply in recent years. The way to think about it today is, "Energy efficiency" -- how to to avoid sacrificing while using the same or less energy.

    I think what we are hearing today from climate observers is that, really, we should use less to save the planet. It's energy efficiency plus conservation because, we have a large challenge before us.

    We are in this together. So those embracing the global concern will wonder if they should suffer and cut back. The way to do it fairly is to have an economy-wide price on carbon pollution -- the playing field that we actually need, but that one that almost everyone in the United States will likely fight.

    Unfortunately, while we embrace free enterprise, we also tend toward dumping pollutants for free, and having future generations pay when more of the cost comes due.

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