WASHINGTON -- When people are rich and fuel is cheap, when the
weather is cold and the economy is hot, the United States can hardly
resist indulging its appetite for energy.
That was the situation in 1996, when Americans tanked up even
extravagantly than usual. Total energy use grew 3.2 percent,
according to the Energy Department, outpacing the nation's economic
growth rate of 2.4 percent.
Last year was the first tick upward in five years, a deviation
from a long downward trend in energy consumed per dollar of economic
production. But while the Energy Department expects improvement in
energy efficiency to resume and to prevail for 15 more years or so,
the rate of improvement seems to be flattening -- just as nations
concerned about global climate changes are pressuring the United
States to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas
produced by burning fossil fuels.
Last week President Clinton proposed a new plan for reducing
emissions by offering American businesses incentives to cut them,
siding with technological optimists who say Yankee ingenuity can
the challenge -- perhaps with a subsidy.
But others say that to keep the growing U.S. economy from pumping
out more carbon dioxide, different incentives are needed. Economic
behaviorists say a painful one may be required: higher energy
Economic regulators want tighter standards for manufacturers to
produce more efficient cars and appliances.
The optimists say there are few technical barriers to further
gains in efficiency. "The trends are historical, and they don't
reflect what the real possibilities are," said Stephen J. DeCanio,
economics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara
who was senior staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers
under President Ronald Reagan. But, he noted, when he and his wife
shopped for new lamps, they couldn't find attractive models that
energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.
"Today, two-thirds of the energy used to provide electricity is
squandered in waste heat," Clinton said as he proposed to reduce
emissions to the 1990 level over the next 10 to 15 years.
"We can do much, much better."
Clinton's plan relies heavily on narrowly targeted incentives and
subsidies for efficiency, and environmentalists and other nations'
negotiators in talks on a new greenhouse-gas treaty said it did too
little too late.
Indeed, the United States, which has 5 percent of the world's
population but emits nearly a quarter of its carbon dioxide, is
turning in an embarrassing performance as it falls short of earlier
goals to cut emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.
But was 1996's increase a blip on a graph, or a warning of a big
problem ahead? Why did the economy suddenly become less efficient in
its use of energy? …