Good life for all needs just 40% of today’s energy

Less than 40% of today’s energy use worldwide would be enough to provide decent living standards for a global population of 10 billion people, according to a new research paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

The paper, “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario” discusses “the energy basis for radical political and economic transformation,” according to one of its authors Professor Julia Steinberger, of the University of Leeds UK and the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland.

The minimum level of global energy consumption identified by the researchers is less than a quarter of that forecast by the International Energy Agency as being needed by 2050; and approximately the same as served a population of just three billion in the 1960s.

The authors emphasise that achieving a downshift to that level would require sweeping changes in current consumption, the elimination of mass global inequalities and widespread deployment of advanced technologies.

But, they pointed out, such changes are in any case essential to avoiding ecological collapse; and these new findings offer a firm rebuttal to claims that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a ‘return to the dark ages’.

“It is clearly within our grasp to provide a decent life for everyone while still protecting our climate and ecosystems,” said Steinberger.

Additionally, that level of energy use would be relatively easy to meet by means of clean sources. Lead author, Dr Joel Millward-Hopkins from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, pointed out that nearly 50% of the energy requirements estimated by the study are already provided by non-fossil fuel technologies.

“Overall, our study is consistent with the long-standing arguments that the technological solutions already exist to support reducing energy consumption to a sustainable level. What we add is that the material sacrifices needed to for these reductions are far smaller than many popular narratives imply,” he said.

To reach its conclusions the researchers calculated minimum energy requirements as delivered to consumers, both direct and indirect, to provide decent living standards, and used that to build a “final energy-model”. They used this to assess the current final energy consumption levels across 119 countries, fiding that the vast majority of countries are living in significant surplus.

For the highest-consuming countries, energy cuts of nearly 95% are possible while still providing decent living standards for all — which include fresh water, warm housing, modern medical care and access to computing and mobile telecoms technology. Energy justice underpins the study’s methods; co-author Professor Narasimha Rao from Yale University, US, said: “This study also confirms our earlier findings at a global scale that eradicating poverty is not an impediment to climate stabilisation.”

The thorny question of how to transition “from the current global situation of vast inequalities, excess and inefficient energy-use to one where decent living standards are provided universally and efficiently” was not addressed by this study but authors did conclude one thing with some certainty: “Although technological progress and individual-level change are essential parts of a solution to ecological breakdown, incrementalist propositions along the lines of green growth and green consumerism are inadequate.”

The paper is open access and available at this link. See here for the University of Leeds release.

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