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Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations

In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away

Vaclav Smil

Enough to Go Around?

2011-05SmilF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAlthough all this might be dismissed as an inevitable result of the desirably far-flung (and hence inherently inefficient) search for solutions, as an expected bias of promoters devoted to their singular ideas and unavoidably jockeying for limited funds, I see more fundamental, and hence much more worrisome, problems. Global energy perspective makes two things clear: Most of humanity needs to consume a great deal more energy in order to experience reasonably healthy lives and to enjoy at least a modicum of prosperity; in contrast, affluent nations in general, and the United States and Canada in particular, should reduce their excessive energy use. While the first conclusion seems obvious, many find the second one wrong or outright objectionable.

In 2009 I wrote that, in order to retain its global role and its economic stature, the United States should

provide a globally appealing example of a policy that would simultaneously promote its capacity to innovate, strengthen its economy by putting it on sounder fiscal foundations, and help to improve Earth’s environment. Its excessively high per-capita energy use has done the very opposite, and it has been a bad bargain because its consumption overindulgence has created an enormous economic drain on the country’s increasingly limited financial resources without making the nation more safe and without delivering a quality of life superior to that of other affluent nations.

I knew that this would be considered a nonstarter in the U.S. energy policy debate: Any calls for restraint or reduction of North American energy use are still met with rejection (if not derision)—but I see that quest to be more desirable than ever. The United States and Canada are the only two major economies whose average annual per capita energy use surpasses 300 gigajoules (an equivalent of nearly 8 tonnes, or more than 50 barrels, of crude oil). This is twice the average in the richest European Union (E.U.) economies (as well as in Japan)—but, obviously, Pittsburghers or Angelenos are not twice as rich, twice as healthy, twice as educated, twice as secure or twice as happy as inhabitants of Bordeaux or Berlin. And even a multiple adjustment of national per capita rates for differences in climate, typical travel distances and economic structure leaves most of the U.S.–E.U. gap intact: This is not surprising once it is realized that Berlin has more degree heating days than Washington D.C., that red peppers travel the same distance in refrigerated trucks from Andalusia to Helsinki as they do from California’s Central Valley to Illinois, and that German exports of energy-intensive machinery and transport-equipment products surpass, even in absolute terms, U.S. sales.

Moreover, those who insist on the necessity and desirability of further growth of America’s per capita energy use perhaps do not realize that, for a variety of reasons, a plateau has been reached already and that (again for many reasons) any upward departures are highly unlikely. In 2010 U.S. energy consumption averaged about 330 gigajoules per capita, nearly 4 percent lower than in 1970, and even the 2007 (pre-crisis) rate of 355 gigajoules (GJ) per capita was below the 1980 mean of 359 GJ. This means that the U.S. per capita consumption of primary energy has remained essentially flat for more than one generation (as has British energy use). How much lower it could have been can be illustrated by focusing on a key consumption sector, passenger transport.

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