How much energy do people need for health, happiness and well-being?
A new study from Stanford University examines human well-being and energy consumption per capita, confirming what we have often written in Treehugger: Yes, having lots of energy has made our lives richer and better, but you can have too much of a good thing. .
Improved access to energy has made our modern civilization possible. As the writer and professor Vaclav Smil wrote in “Energy and Civilization”: “This led first to rapid industrialization and urbanization, the expansion and acceleration of transport, and an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that created great real wealth, raising the average quality of life for most of the world’s population. »
But the energy is not evenly distributed. According to Max Roser, founder and director of Our World in Data: “The world’s number one energy problem is the problem of energy poverty – those who do not have sufficient access to modern energy sources suffer from poor living conditions in result.”
We have often pointed out that rich countries consume far too much energy and that people living in energy poverty consume too little. Now, the Stanford study examines the correlation between energy consumption and well-being to determine how much energy per capita is enough to meet human needs.
“We need to address equity in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions,” lead study author Rob Jackson told Stanford News. “One of the least sustainable ways to do that would be to raise everyone to the levels of consumption that we have in the United States.”
The study looked at nine parameters of health and economic and environmental well-being: access to electricity, air quality, food supply, the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality in income), happiness, infant mortality, life expectancy, prosperity and sanitation. The graph compares them to the national energy supply per capita in gigajoules. The team found that life gets better for just about everyone as energy consumption improves, but not at the same rate for all countries. Some underperform with less improvement using more energy, and others – like Malta, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, Norway, Morocco and Denmark – get more for their money.
The average global per capita energy consumption is 79 gigajoules, with US consumption being 284 gigajoules per person. But the study finds that almost all of the nine factors add up to about 75 gigajoules per person, a quarter of the American average, and the rest doesn’t add much to our health, happiness, or well-being. As noted by study co-author and climatologist Anders Ahlström, “energy supply is similar to income in this way: excess energy supply has marginal returns.”
The study concludes:
“The fact that billions of people need access to more energy to maximize their well-being is well known. That billions of other people could in principle reduce their energy consumption with little or no loss of health, happiness, or other outcomes is more surprising, reducing the need for some additional energy infrastructure and increasing global fairness.”
None of this will be new to regular Treehugger readers, although we rarely talk about gigajoules. The wellness goal of 75 gigajoules per person converts to 20,833 kilowatt hours; this interactive version of the map makes it easier to see which countries fall within that happy range, which are above and which are below. It’s becoming pretty clear that the Americans are pretty profligate and the Canadians are even worse.
The study is also not the first to note that high energy consumption is not necessarily correlated with happiness and well-being. As Smil noted when examining such numbers in his book, “Energy and Civilization”:
“Meeting basic human needs obviously requires a moderate level of energy intake, but international comparisons clearly show that gains in quality of life stabilize with increasing energy consumption. Societies that focus more on human well-being that on frivolous consumption can achieve a better quality of life while consuming a fraction of the fuels and electricity used by the most wasteful countries.The contrasts between Japan and Russia, the Costa Rica and Mexico, or Israel and Saudi Arabia show this clearly.In all these cases, the external realities of energy flows are obviously of secondary importance for internal motivations and decisions. similar (for example, that of Russia and New Zealand) can produce fundamentally different results.
The Stanford study, Smil, or for that matter, my book “Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle”, where I called for “simpler, sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to combat overconsumption – consume better but less,” all say much the same thing: At some point, burning more energy or emitting more carbon doesn’t buy much more happiness or well-being. And that point might just be 75 gigajoules.