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Can We Live The Good Life With Less Energy?

Irina Slav

Declarations of a climate emergency are the latest fad among world governments. Everyone wants to be in the cool crowd of those ready to save the planet with their own bare hands. Few, however, are asking the important question: Can we save the planet without depriving millions of people of a decent life?

And before you ask, no, your smartphone and laptop don’t fit into this “decent life”.

This is where climate change activists would normally present the argument that it is climate change that is threatening the livelihoods of not millions but hundreds of millions of people. This is a valid argument, but there is an equally valid one a bit far from the climate change activists’ camp.

That argument is that everyone on the planet deserves a decent life, and this decent life is enabled through energy use. 

So, the question is, ultimately, how much energy do we need for a decent life? Only through this answer will we be able to manage our energy consumption with a view to limiting the adverse effects of climate change on the planet.

As to how much energy is required to maintain a decent life, the answer is: less than you might expect, according to a new study. 

A team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria recently released a paper that looked into the energy use of three large developing economies to glean insight into how much energy people need to satisfy their basic needs.

On the face of it, the conclusions that the IIASA researchers came to were optimistic. What they found was that each of the three countries they focused on—Brazil, South Africa, and India—produced a lot more energy than their growing populations needed to satisfy their basic needs.

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"We didn't expect that the energy needs for a minimally decent life would be so modest, even for countries like India where large gaps exist. It was also a pleasant surprise that the most essential human needs related to health, nutrition, and education, are cheap in terms of energy. Along the way, we also found that measuring poverty in terms of these material deprivations far exceeds the World Bank's definition of income poverty," lead author Narasimha Rao said as quoted by Eurekalert.

Naturally, however, these conclusions are based on an assumption about what a minimally decent life consists of, and how many of us would be satisfied with this life. The answer to the latter is: not many. The problem with basic needs such as access to electricity, healthcare, and education is that they are just that: basic. And we humans like to build on basics rather than stay with them.

Practicality of this basic lifestyle aside, the research has its detractors. In early 2018, journalist Kris De Decker wrote an extensive piece on the topic of how much energy humans need and whether we can satisfy this need by less polluting, more economical means than we are suing now. It is probably one of the most exhaustive texts on the topic and it’s not all too optimistic.

One of the important facts De Decker notes—a fact that casts a shadow over the optimistic conclusions of the IIASA researchers—is that so-called energy poverty changes with time.

As De Decker puts it, “What is sufficient today is not necessarily sufficient tomorrow. For example, several consumer goods which did not exist in the 1980s, such as mobile phones, personal computers, and internet access, were seen as absolute necessities by 40-41% of the UK public in 2012.”

Chances are, what was true for the UK in 2012 is now true for a lot more countries, including Brazil, South Africa and India. There are also varying basic needs depending on geography: in cold climates people need more energy for heating. In hot climates they need more energy for air conditioning (where they can afford it. Where they can’t, they have the siesta).

Ultimately, however, the problem is that a lot of things that used to be luxury just a few decades ago we now perceive as a need, and a basic one at that. This makes calculations of exactly how much energy we need to satisfy our basic needs a lot more challenging.

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What all research on the topic of energy use seems to agree on, however, is that it’s superconsumers of energy that are driving the world’s emissions higher despite the growing deployment of renewables. It is the mistaking of our wants for needs that is causing a lot of emissions that can be avoided. But how?

Through energy efficiency, says De Decker, leaning on research. Through governments investing in more public transport to get people out of their cars, building sustainable residential housing, and encouraging people to eat more sustainably, say the IIASA researchers.

While energy efficiency has already proved to be a working approach to the management of our energy consumption, the other suggestions are more wishful thinking than anything realistically applicable to any developing economy. 

The hard truth about humans is that the more we have, the more we want. It may be an evolutionary survival mechanism, or it might be wrong brain wiring but it is a fact and it might become the one insurmountable obstacle on our way out of frying the planet while se satisfy our wants, calling them needs.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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