Energy Efficiency: Less Means More; Fueling a Sustainable Future

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, May 7, 1988 | Go to article overview

Energy Efficiency: Less Means More; Fueling a Sustainable Future


Raloff, Janet, Science News


Energy Efficiency: Less Means More

How the world fuels its growth is central to many of earth's most critical problems, especially its environmental health. Increasing evidence links fossil fuel emissions to acidifying lakes, dying forests, reduced crop yields and human respiratory disease. "Our energy systems are irrevocably altering the climate by adding 5.4 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year, more than a ton for each person on the planet," notes Christopher Flavin, an energy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute. "Simply put, an environmentally sound energy strategy is a prerequisite to a sustainable society." And a prerequisite to any environmentally sound energy strategy, he and others argue, must be more efficient use of energy.

Since the Arab oil embargo nearly 15 years ago, a quiet but dramatic revolution in energy conservation has swept the industrialized world, reducing the projected increase in atmospheric pollutants and in large part producing the world oil glut. "The world has saved far more energy [since 1973] through improved efficiency than it has gained from all new sources," Flavin and Alan B. Durning write in a new Worldwatch Institute report, "Building on Success -- the Age of Energy Efficiency."

Yet as experts survey prospects for the 21st century, they see an even more dramatic need for saving energy. Energy waste threatens the economic health of societies large and small, industrial and agrarian, socially planned and market driven. Although new energy-conservation technologies loom on the horizon, institutional resistance, inadequate consumer education and old ways of doing business threaten to slow their adoption.

The United States currently spends about 11.2 percent of its gross national product on energy, while Japan spends only about 5 percent. This relative inefficiency in fueling its energy needs costs the United States $220 billion a year, according to Arthur H. Rosenfeld, director of the Center for Building Science at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) in Berkeley, Calif. Moreover, Rosenfeld points out, this cost differential gives the Japanese "about a 5 percent economic edge on everything they sell" -- both in the United States and in foreign competition with U.S.-made products.

This is not to downplay recent progress made in the United States in reducing energy use, says Rosenfeld, whose center is renowned for pioneering energy-conserving technologies. It just illustrates that there is room for much improvement.

How much? Energy analyst John O. Blackburn, Duke University's Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Economics, says he believes inefficiencies may still account for 50 percent of the energy used in the United States and most Western European countries, somewhat less than 50 percent in Japan, and considerably more than 50 percent in the Soviet Union.

Flavin and Durning offer incentives and guidelines for tackling these inefficiencies in their report. They point out that the energy saved by Western industrialized countries and Japan exceeds the energy used by Africa, Latin America and South Asia combined, and represents the single largest step toward reducing their dependence on oil imports. In fact, Durning says, "we feel it's now possible in most industrialized countries to keep energy consumption level for the foreseeable future" -- without sacrificing economic growth.

Just a decade ago, many energy analysts predicted that efficiency improvements of 20 or 30 percent could be achieved only at the expense of wrenching societal change -- such as shivering through winters in the dark or abandoning the family automobile. Now, Flavin and Durning report, these improvements have occurred, but largely without notice. Between 1973 and 1985, most Western European nations reduced energy consumption--as measured per dollar of gross national product -- by 18 to 20 percent. …

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