Energy is what fuels every entity, living or mechanical, in this world. It’s unarguably a necessity that keeps our living standards comfortable, advances technology, and feeds our people. And it’s pretty common knowledge that there are numerous movements around the world to decrease our energy use due to the heavy toll it takes on our finite fossil fuels. However, if you were to consider countries where most people lack electricity, in retrospect my words: “comfortable livings standards, advances technology,” makes energy inefficiency seem much more a first world problem.
The idea isn’t a difficult concept to grasp. First world countries have higher living standards and thus use more energy, and poorer countries have numerous people without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan African, for example, is only able to generate 30 gigawatts of electricity, whereas the US generates 3000 gigawatts. Poverty is a global issue that is frequently addressed, but we only are able to generate so much energy. How do we provide electricity for so many when we have such a finite amount of fossil fuels and not-yet there clean energy? Figure 1 is a graph that shows how much energy per capita different countries strive for by 2035 and the red bar is the present world average. I think it shows how frivolously energy can be wasted and what different people deem “necessary”. But I also think it shows another reason why energy efficiency is such a big issue.
So what do we do? Do we lower our standards? In Bill McKibben’s opinion (founder of 350.org), yes. According to him, climate change is a “greed problem” and rather than switching to cleaner forms of energy, we become a low-energy society. Now I am not on board with the latter part, but I do agree with the former. I think energy can be more evenly distributed. But again, fossil fuels are finite, and even the US has problems with dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps if we address poverty in the world, we can tackle the energy problem much better. A world with more equity in energy access is better equipped to tackle decarbonization.
So to answer the ubiquitous and extremely annoying question, “Why does energy efficiency matter?” Well, if poverty is a more heart-wrenching problem to you, saving energy is like donating extra food to the hungry. And by pulling third-world countries out of destitution, we may be moving ourselves into a world of clean energy. The two issues ought to go hand-in-hand.