What can we do about how much power the world uses?
Throughout the day we turn lights on and off, use appliances around the house and nudge up the heat on a cold day, all without much thought. Maybe there’s a voice reminding you to turn the light off when you leave the room or chastising you when you hit the AC button, but for the most part, energy production, use and its impact on the environment is a little discussed topic. So let’s talk about it.
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The vast majority of energy produced globally comes from fossil fuels, about 80%. The other 20% is a combination of renewable resources, such as hydro, wind, geothermal and solar, as well as nuclear. The fossil fuels we’re talking about here are coal, oil and natural gas. All these contribute to global warming through the release of greenhouse gasses. A report by the IEA earlier this year reports 2021 saw the largest increase in carbon dioxide emissions ever — a 6% increase that measures 36.3 billion tons. This is in alignment with the findings from OurWorldinData.org which reports more than a 5.5% increase in energy consumption during the first year of recovery after the pandemic lockdowns.
The data is clear. The more energy we use, at least when burning fossil fuels, the more pollution and global warming we cause. While parents have yelled at their children about wasteful energy habits for generations, now the planet is scolding all of us.
The highest-consuming countries
Fingers point in every direction when we start talking about who’s to blame. The truth is, though, there’s a massive inconsistency across the globe. While it’s true larger populations can lead to higher energy consumption, it’s far from a rule. The largest consuming country on the planet is China (population of 1.41 billion in 2019), eating up 6,523 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2019. In the same year, the United States (population 328 million) was the second largest consumer at 3,830 TWh. That means we have one-quarter the population of China but use half as much energy.
For further comparison, the third-ranking energy consumer is India (population 1.39 billion) with a consumption of 1,311 TWh. Comparing those numbers we can see although India has four times the population, it consumes one-third of what the United States does. In fact, the top 10 consuming nations suck up around 70% of the world’s total energy usage.
When we break it down even more, balancing the equation with the population factor, we get a slightly different perspective. According to OurWorldinData, the per-person consumption shows, “The largest energy consumers include Iceland, Norway, Canada, the United States, and wealthy nations in the Middle East such as Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The average person in these countries consumes as much as 100 times more than the average person in some of the poorest countries.”
Where we’re headed
Energy usage has been on the rise pretty much since the invention of modern power. In recent decades, we’ve amplified consumption as technology has become mainstream in developed countries. As The World Counts reports, “Global energy demand grew by 2.9% in 2018 and in a business as usual scenario, by 2040 global energy consumption will reach 740 million terajoules – equivalent to an additional 30 percent growth. From 2000 to 2040, this will amount to a 77 percent increase in global energy consumption. From 1980 to 2050, global energy use could triple from around 300 to 900 million terajoules.”
Where the energy is used
Even if we all get solar panels in our homes and essentially move off-grid, we’d only eliminate one-third of the world’s energy consumption. While that would be a great scenario, meeting many goals set in regard to global warming, it begs the question: “Who’s using the other two-thirds?” The answer is commercial and public services and industries.
It’s interesting to see the shift over the last fifty years, with residential consumption growing from about 25% of the world‘s consumption to around one-third. Similarly, the commercial and public service sector has increased consumption from about 16% to 25%. During the same time, industry has dropped its share of the energy pie from nearly 60% to less than 50%.
The power of change
That means we have to do more than turn out the lights when we leave the room. As consumers, we need to hold businesses accountable. We need to expect them to invest in renewable energy at the manufacturing phase, take responsibility for transport emissions, eliminate unnecessary plastic and move back into producing durable quality products.
As community members, we need to hold our elected officials to an environmental standard. Public service is for the people. If the people are for the planet, the policies should be too.