Inefficient Use Of Energy

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world population has increased by a factor of about 3.5; during the same period, worldwide energy consumption has increased by a factor of about 15. In other words, there are 3.5 times as many people in the world today as there were in 1900, and each one, on average, is consuming about four times as much energy (Gibbons, Blair, & Gwin, 1989). In view of such numbers, it is not surprising that energy is one of the three major components—along with agriculture and manufacturing—of the growth and globalization of human activity that have had the greatest impact on the environment (Clark, 1989). Anticipated population and economic growth in the near-term future provides the basis for an expectation of continued exponential growth of energy demands (National Research Council, 1979). If historical trends continue unabated, the current level of worldwide energy use could quadruple by the middle of the 21st century, although, according to Starr, Searl, and Alpert (1992), concerted efforts to conserve energy and develop and use energy-efficient systems could reduce this expectation by about one half.

Consumption is much greater, of course, in developed than in developing countries. About one fifth to one fourth of the world's population consumes about 70% of the commercially available energy; so it is not surprising that about three quarters of the world's greenhouse gases are generated by about 20% of the world's population (Oppenheimer & Boyle, 1990). The per capita rate of energy consumption in the United States is a little more than 5 times as great as the world average and over 10 times as great as it is in the Third World (Sassin, 1980; United Nations, 1991). However, the energy demands of Third World countries are increasing rapidly and are expected to grow much faster than those of developed countries in the future. Recently, commercial energy consumption has been increasing at the rate of about 4% per year in less developed countries, which is about four times the rate of increase in industrialized parts of the world (Goldemberg, 1995).

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (1989), as of 1986, the use of energy in the United States was distributed over four major sectors as follows: industrial, 35%; transportation, 28%; residential, 21%; and commercial 16%. Conservation efforts between 1972 and 1986, spurred by the increases in oil prices by the OPEC producers in the early 1970s, were more successful in the industrial and residential sectors than in commerce and transportation; together the industrial and residential sectors accounted for about 74% of the conservation that was achieved. Despite this fact, fewer than one quarter of U.S. households that might have done so claimed tax credits for conservation expenditures (Hirst, Clinton, Geller, & Kroner, 1986). This suggests that the amount of conservation realized was small relative to what could possibly have been achieved.

More generally, the efficiency of energy usage has increased substantially throughout the industrialized world since the early 1970s crisis (Gibbons, Blair, & Gwin, 1989; Hamilton, 1990), but the efficiency increases that have been realized do not come close to what is theoretically realizable (Ross & Williams, 1981; U.S. Department of Energy, 1988). According to some estimates, the United States uses nearly twice as much energy per unit of production as does either Japan or Western Europe (International Energy Agency, 1987). Much greater savings could be realized in the future by the greater use of energy-efficient lighting—in the United States, about one fourth of the electric energy produced is used for lighting purposes (Fickett, Gellings, & Lovins, 1990)—and by the use of control systems to match energy production to short-term fluctuations in need. Greater fuel economies for private automobiles are technically feasible at modest cost over the next few years; however, the availability of low-cost fuel provides a disincentive to realizing them, and there is the possibility that gains effected by more fuel-efficient cars would be offset by more driving as a consequence of the lower per-mile driving cost (DeCicco & Ross, 1994).

The efficiency with which energy is used has significant environmental implications, but this is only part of the story. Assuming that we manage to use energy much more efficiently in the future than we have in the past, the total worldwide demand for energy is likely to continue to increase, and it probably cannot do so indefinitely without serious environmental effects—independently of any risk of depleting limited natural resources. Atmospheric and oceanic heating, with attendant climatological changes, are among the possibilities already noted. Increased energy use seems likely to mean increased production and consumption, more land development, more waste generation, and so on. In other words, greatly increasing the use of energy seems likely to amplify other troublesome environmental effects, most of which require energy to produce.

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