The US is often implicated as the greatest culprit in Global Warming because it’s energy consumption is so high. We are barraged daily with articles stating that the US is the world’s biggest CO2 producer or that if the rest of the world consumed as much energy as the US we would need 7 earths to sustain it. The single biggest problem with these assertions is that they jugde energy consumption in a vacuum - they never consider what that energy is actually used for. Environmentalists love to promulgate the image that the US gobbles up most of it’s energy through Jacuzzis, SUV’s and Big Screen TV’s.
The reality is far different, far more complicated, and extremely important to understand. Consider first that China recently overtook the US as the worlds largest CO2 emitter. See this article:
China overtakes US as world’s biggest CO2 emitter
Once this happened, the critics changed their tune, pointing out instead that the US is the largest CO2 emitter per capita. Indeed, of course it is, the US produces 20% of the worlds GDP (yes, 20% of ALL products and services generated IN THE ENTIRE WORLD are made by the US, a mere 5% of the population) It makes a significant portion of the worlds food supply, the worlds grain supply, the worlds textile supply, and the worlds supply of computational services and electrical and industrial supplies.
In fact Americans produce more goods per unit of CO2 produced than any other country. In places like sub Saharan Africa, where people burn wood and even animal waste just to cook food, they produce 10 or 100 times as much CO2 per person for the useful products they produce. In China, people produce more than those in Africa per unit of energy used, but still much less than in the US. In fact the US is one of the most efficient users of energy in the entire world, and if the rest of the world used energy as efficiently as the US in producing it’s goods, the total CO2 contributions to the earths atmosphere right now would be about one tenth of it’s current amount.
Consider this from wikipedia on “US Energy Consumption”
“The United States is the largest energy consumer in terms of total use, using 100 quadrillion BTU (105 exajoules, or 29000 TWh) in 2005, equivalent to an (average) consumption rate of 3.3 TW. The U.S. ranks seventh in energy consumption per-capita after Canada and a number of small countries.”
While the US is the largest energy consumer, it never the less ranks seventh in energy consumption per capita. Concurrently, according to the World Bank, at $44,155 the United States ranks 7th in Gross Domestic Product Per Capita - The measurement of the overall goods and services produced. (Luxembourgh ranks number 1, but does it really count?) Comparing the Gross Domestic Product per capita with Energy use per capita we see the following (for 2005)
Country GDP / Capita (International Monetary Fund, Worldbank, CIA)
USA - $44,155
China - $2,304
European Union - $26,900
Energy Use 2005
USA - 100 quadrillion BTU’s (Energy Information Administration and #2 is from the World Resources Institute)
China – 60.84 quadrillion BTU’s (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb1103.html 59.57 quad btu’s for 2004)
EU – 73.7 quadrillion BTU’s (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/European_Union/Energy.html for 2003)
GDP / per capita / 1 quadrillion BTU’s (dividing the GDP / Capita by the number of quadrillion BTU’s)
USA - $441.55
China – $38.4
EU - $364
What this shows is that for every quadrillion BTU’s consumed in energy, the United States produces $441 dollars worth of usable goods and services per person. China, by contrast, produces $38 of usable goods and services for every quadrillion BTU’s used per person, or less than 1/10 the amount. Because of this, China has been launching major campaigns to improve energy efficiency. The US is frequently presented as the worst offender of all the nations, and while per capita CO2 production is highest in the US, per capita energy WASTING in the US is one of the lowest in the world, and if we are to make serious headway in reducing the production of CO2, lets start by reducing the absolutely wasteful energy production systems employed in most of the world.
Cutting back on energy use in the US, or the EU, for instance, will cause increases in the cost of the worlds grain supply and much of the worlds food supply, something that will hurt the poorest people of the world the most. How many additional people starve to death when the price of grain increases by 1%? it’s hard to say, but for the poorest of the poor in the world, small changes in prices certainly have tremendous consequences. If we talk about energy consumption absent of energy usage and efficiency, we open ourselves up to make other problems much worse even while making little headway on the original problem.
It is extremely important to point out not only how much energy is used, but how exactly that energy is used. For example, look at this article on “ecoworld” http://www.ecoworld.com/home/articles2.cfm?tid=294
“Imagine that through conservation and increased energy efficiency, every citizen in the United States were to consume half the BTUs they currently consume. This is certainly possible, though very unlikely in the near term. In 1995 the U.S. citizenry consumed, on average, 327 million BTUs per year, which is more than twice what many developed countries use per capita, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Japan.”
I added the emphasis here because this article is asking us to examine how much energy the United States uses but does not ask at to look at what it is used for. As noted, the US’s Gross Domestic Product Per Capita is almost twice that of the European Unions. This energy is not going into Jacuzzis and McMansions, it is going to products and services the entire world uses. Is it fair, or more importantly, reasonable, to look at energy consumption in a vacuum? That article then goes on to say -
“If, for example, everyone on earth consumed as much energy as U.S. citizens currently use, worldwide energy production would not have to go from 316 QBTUs to over 600 QBTUs, but instead to over 1,900 QBTUs!”
Something which indeed is even more disingenuous, since the United States produces 20% of the world’s products and services! If the United States, which makes up 5% of the entire world’s population never the less produces 20% of the products and services used in the world, why would everyone else in the world, 20 times over, also need to produce the equivalent of what the US produces!? This makes no sense; the implication in the articles is that the US merely consumes that much energy for useless things, which is completely untrue. Look at the phrasing above “if everyone on earth CONSUMED as much energy as the U.S. citizens USES…” Uses for what? Producing 20% of the worlds products and services! So lets say If the other 95% of the world, divided into chunks of 5% (to equal the US’s population) that would make 20 other ‘nations’ which are ALSO producing the equivalent of today’s 20% of the worlds products and services. This would amount to a whopping 400% increase in the gross domestic product of the world! Of course this would require worldwide energy production to increase, but is a completely worthless comparison.
The United States is frequently blamed, at least implicitly, as the primary contributor to global warming when people cite how much energy it uses compared to other nations. Yet as illustrated by this bit of googling, the US utilizes it’s energy nearly 10 times more efficiently than, for example, China, and it is in fact one of the most efficient energy users on the planet. If the rest of the world used energy as efficiently as the United States does, global CO2 contributions would be about 1/10 of what they currently are, and more importantly worl wide products and services would be less expensive. Efforts toward increasing efficiency in the US would result in minor benefits compared to efforts at increasing efficiencies in China and India (these nations are aware of their extremely wasteful energy usage and China for instance has launched a major campaign to increase it’s energy efficiency) When combating major problems, it is always extremely important to understand what the best thing to do to combat that problem is, not simply what is easiest or politically expedient, and certainly not by attacking the industry of the nation that has done so much to raise the standard of living for the entire world.
Astute googlers might notice that Japan exceeds our GDP / Capita and yet consumes half the energy per capita the US does suggesting we have room for improvement. In Japan’s case though, it is important to note that the population density of Japan is much higher (127 million people living in about 1/4 the geographic area) and the climate is more moderate (a significant amount of energy is used merely to heat and cool buildings) and occupants of the US spend considerable more energy just traveling between diverse population density centers and maintaining comfortable temperatures.
While meeting Japan’s effeciency would be a two fold increase, China, India, and Africa still lag far behind with 1/10thor less the energy efficiency intensity of the US. The United States should be celebrated for it’s productiveness and effeciency, instead of attacked as an energy glutton without context.
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