Sunday, February 22, 2009

What's My (Reasonable) Share? Energy Consumption in a Brave New World

I absolutely accept the notion that the opportunity to access energy at an ever-increasing rate has created a standard of living that has become increasingly high for an increasing portion of the world population, and that in general this is a good thing.

That being said, we know that the U.S., with about 4.5% of the world population[1], consumes around 21%[2] of the world’s energy. With China and India on the rise and their populations comprising about 37%[1] of the world, the question presents itself: how much can each person on earth consume? While this is not a question to be arbited by any one nation or decision-making body, it seems to be presenting itself from many directions as developing countries seek to industrialize and the global community debates approaches to mitigating world pollution, resource depletion, and climate change.

As we investigate the future of energy production, including technology for conventional and renewable sources, we anticipate increased efficiency in production and delivery in conjunction with development of new technologies. However, if the ultimate goal is progress toward increasingly sustainable patterns (i.e. reliable supply; reduced pollution, environmental and human health damages), perhaps the exploration of how we can use increasingly less on a per capita basis is a critical part of the equation?

Because local patterns of industry, climate, and culture are unique and because changes in technology and the corresponding energy demands are impossible to predict, I ask this question in the spirit of exploring where we might identify and reduce “wasteful consumption.” This question is very much based on the premise that no one is specifically entitled to some amount of consumption, but that we all find ourselves in various states of fortune with regard to access, and perhaps we have an ethical obligation to consider this question. I wonder about this personally, and hope to explore it further in future work this semester (and I welcome any ideas about ways in which I might explore it!). For now, I present a few points of data.

In 2005, the per capita consumption of energy in high income countries was three times that of the world per capita rate. The North American per capita consumption was 4.5 times higher, and Europe consumed twice the average world per capita rate[3].

Figure 1 Per capita energy use for highest consuming countries, 2000.

Table 1 Per capita energy use for highest consuming countries, 2000.
We have seen the levels of reduction that are possible during crises: in April 2008, Juneau, Alaska lost hydroelectric generation capacity and in response reduced energy consumption by almost 1/3 within the span of a week. A drought in 2001 led Brazil to impose a 20% reduction in electricity use—a crisis with severe economic consequences for the country.

Just as there are those who disagree that the climate is changing due to anthropogenic impacts, many would argue against the need for lifestyle changes based on energy sustainability. Resistance to reducing waste is a complex issue of habit and cultural standard of living expectations. I am curious to explore what behaviors we might modify regarding our consumption and how much impact they might have, in addition to energy needs based on assumptions for per capita use of future populations of developed nations.

[1] CIA World Factbook (July 2008 data):
[2] International Energy Annual 2006:
[3] Nation Master website, which sites IEA as the source of this data:


Anonymous said...

We definitely waste a lot of energy. One factor that let's us waste so much energy is there really isn't a consequence for waste. If I drive an extra 50 miles a week the only penalty I pay is a few more dollars at the gas station. There is no tangible effect to wasting energy right now. It will become a lot easier to recognize the need to waste less if we can see the effects of our actions.

Nishesh Mehta said...


You pose a very pertinent question. One of distribution of energy among the citizens of the world (which is equivalent to the distribution of natural resources). Do we subscribe to the belief that each person inherits an equal share of the world's resources?
The answer to this question is crucial in defining "sustainable energy supply" on a macroscopic level. By sustainable, do we mean the current distribution of per capita energy consumption?
Personally, I think it would be unreasonable to let the current disparity in access to energy guide the definition of "sustainability".
On a different note, an interesting way to slice the problem is to look at the correlation between energy consumed by a country to its GDP. In other words how efficient is the country's economy in translating a unit of energy consumed to dollars. An example of such a calculation is available at
This calculation suggests that while the US required only 12000 BTUs to earn one dollar of GNP, China needed 46000 BTUs to earn the same dollar and India needed 30,000 BTUs in 1995.
Though the data is dated, it drives home two powerful points. To follow a sustainable course in energy supply the emerging economies of India and China will have to become much more efficient in converting energy consumption to wealth. Even the US can become much more efficient in this conversion.
So, not only is there a moral imperative to ask ourselves this question but also an economic one.

Miguel Baca said...

I think this is a great topic and also it creates a lot of debate. I am from a “developing” country and just this term makes me think many things. I am from Mexico and just in the last 10 years, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita has increased from $8,700usd in 1998 to $13,100usd in 2008 (CIA,2008). This represents a 50% increase in just one decade. This was because of the global economic expansion and the increasing number of foreign companies that opened up all kinds of factories in Mexico such as: car manufacturing, telecommunication assembly, pharmaceutical, food processing, cloth manufacturing, electronics, and so forth. This obviously increased the use of energy in all sectors. The employment rate decreased to a low 3% (Stratfor). People had more money and more products were demanded, more houses, cars, and food were bought. There is a correlation between GDP per capita and Energy Consumption per capita (ECP). The actual ECP of Mexico is around 1,500 kg of oil equivalents per capita which puts it in the 89th place in comparison to the USA 1st place (Globalis, 2009). Similar to Mexico, other developing countries are demanding more energy at a faster growth rate. These countries need energy to meet their economic growth and development. If they ever want to be part of the “developed world” they most keep up consumption. The problem for the developing countries I guess is not how much they are consuming, but what kind of action could be incorporated at an early development stage for an efficient, clean, and sustainable demand with low foot print in the atmosphere. The developed worlds face the problem of a great ECP at a stable growth.
In sum, there are two problems here. On one side, we have energy greedy countries and, on the other side, we have the “developing” energy greedy countries. Therefore the energy-economic policies should be formulated different for both worlds. One can expect that Mexico would use environmental-friendly technologies but will not stop its energy demand. USA or China must reduce their voracity and moderate their demand. Is it feasible? Time will tell us.

Globalis Indicator , 2009:
CIA World Factbook (July 2008 data):
IAEA , 2009:
Stratfor, 2009: