We Can Use Less Energy and Still Have Good Lives

The good life in Central Park.
Photo: Cindy Ord (Getty Images)

At last night’s presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden refused to endorse the Green New Deal but reaffirmed some of his campaign’s climate promises.

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“We’re going to build an economy that in fact is going to provide for the ability of us to take 4 million buildings and make sure that they in fact are weatherized in a way that in fact, they’ll emit significantly less,” he said. “We can get to net zero, in terms of energy production, by 2035. Not only not costing people jobs, creating jobs, creating millions of good-paying jobs.”

A new study shows that America could go even further, reducing its emissions rapidly by using less energy overall while still maintaining a good quality of life for all people and expanding universal public services.


The new research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change on Wednesday, compared current average energy consumption across 119 countries with their estimates of the minimum amount of energy needed to provide each person with a decent living standard. They found that in 2050, world energy consumption could be lowered to the levels of the 1960s and still provide a decent standards of living for every individual. That’s true despite the fact that the global population will have tripled by then.

Lowering the world’s rate of energy use would make it far easier to rapidly switch over to 100% renewables. Non-fossil fuel energy sources are about 17% of total energy used today. That makes the climb to 100% renewables seem pretty steep. But Joel Millward-Hopkins, a research fellow at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds and the study’s lead author, said in an emailed statement that “that is nearly 50% of what we estimate is needed to provide a decent standard of living for all in 2050.”


The authors also show this is all possible using currently-existing technology, as long as the most efficient versions of that technology are deployed. To be clear, the future the authors map out isn’t a world of asceticism where everyone lives in tiny pods, cooks over a fire made by rubbing sticks together, and walks 30 miles just to buy a loaf of bread.

“We still get Duolingo, we still get laptops and internet, you can still...watch TV,” said Julia Steinberger, leader of the Living Well Within Limits project at the University Leeds and professor at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland, who co-authored the study.


The authors’ metric for a decent living standard is based on previous research illustrating the minimum amount of energy people need to have their basic needs met, including physical ones like sufficient housing, heat and cooling, and nutrition, but also other needs like access to education, healthcare, and information technology. With this framework, the new study’s researchers mapped out how much energy would be needed if every person’s life took after this model.

But the world modeled in the study is not exactly fully-automated luxury communism, either. For today’s highest per-capita consumers, such as the U.S., Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates, the authors map out 95% cuts to energy use. There are strict limits imposed on consumption, and not just on the elite’s use of private jets and yachts.


For instance, the model doesn’t eliminate meat consumption, but it does vastly lower it to under 33 pounds (15 kilograms) per person per year. That’s an 85% reduction from current levels in the U.S. and Australia, and well under half the global average. In the world the researchers modeled, each individual is afforded roughly 100-200 square feet (9.3 to 18.6 square meters) of living space, which is about the size of a small New York City studio.

“It’s not a cramped dwelling space, but if you live in the American suburbs, that might be a small space compared to what you’re more used to,” Steinberger said.


Though the study models a world where everyone has the same standard of living, that doesn’t mean every person would use the same exact amount of energy. In hotter climates, the study accounts for individuals using more air conditioning. Similarly, the authors model more energy used for water availability in areas farther away from rivers or lakes, where long-distance or deep groundwater pumping is required to power people’s sinks and showers.

Though many residents of wealthier countries in the Global North would see their consumption shrink under this model, the changes would actually vastly increase consumption for some, especially in extremely impoverished countries in the Global South.


“For instance, countries in sub-Saharan Africa right now show vastly lower levels of energy consumption per person, despite the fact that they’re using really inefficient technologies,” Steinberger said. “That shows there’s a huge level of deprivation in those countries, which this model would eliminate.”

Some of us in the Global North would experience some significant improvements to our lives in the utopia the study maps out, too. For instance, the authors’ model includes universal healthcare and education for all children ages 5 to 19 and a massive expansion of public transportation so that people can meet their needs without using private vehicles.


The study doesn’t lay out exact specifics for what exactly each individual should eat each day, what exactly homes should look like, or precisely what kind of buses. Rather it’s an idealized version of what could be to balance society around the globe and the planet.

As the study emphasizes, realizing this vision would require massive structural changes, including the widespread deployment of advanced technologies and public services and policies to completely eliminate mass global inequalities. But the authors don’t get into exactly what kinds of economic and political changes would be needed to get us there. Steinberger did say, however, that the world she and her co-authors modeled is based on fundamentally different values than the one we live in today.


“Right now, we’re told our primary role is as consumers. People are taught to overconsume because that’s how you’re supposed to get your sense of self,” she said.

In the alternative society the study models, she said, people’s needs would be met, eliminating unnecessary plane trips, but also eliminating economic hardships and indignities like evictions.


“We’d probably have a changed cultural mindset, where people’s basic human needs are met, so you get a shot at life,” she said. “There may be lower working times because we’re not working more hours to create more stuff for ever-expanding markets or to consume more. There may be more time for families, for leisure, for the things that, for many people, are what really matter.”


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