October 01, 2009

Is Anyone Really Saving Energy?

After the American Century

Is anyone really saving energy? Time for a little reality check, as all the green rhetoric might make one believe the use of electricity and gasoline is falling.

The Kyoto Protocol was intended to help reduce pollution and CO2 levels. Signed by most of the world's nations beginning in 1997, it went into effect in 2005. However, during this eight-year interval, the signatory nations failed even to restrain consumer demand, which galloped ahead each year by an average of 500 billion additional kilowatts.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2005 the world was using one third more electricity annually than it had in 1997. This growth was by no means evenly distributed. Japan, whose economy was not growing much anyway, nearly achieved zero energy growth (4%) in contrast to China's rampant 223% increase. Germany (10%), France (17%), and the United Kingdom (12%) grew rather than shrank their demand, but they were less profligate than Ireland (51%), India (40%), Argentina (39%), or Brazil (27%). Almost everywhere the consumer wanted more and no nation had managed to reverse the trend.

The failure to reduce energy use cannot be explained by cost-benefit analysis. US energy efficiency could be improved by 23% through off-the-shelf technologies such as better insulation, replacement of inefficient appliances and light bulbs, and the like. The cost of making these changes would quickly be recovered through large savings on electricity bills. But consumers do not want to invest up front to get the longer term benefits.

Likewise, automobiles are on sale that are twice as efficient as the average car on the American road. Moreover, Europeans and Asians, who once could sneer at Americans for driving so much have adopted the car in ever increasing numbers. Indeed, earlier this year for the first time the Chinese topped the US in new car sales, with more than 1 million new vehicles sold each month. Not much help for global warming there.

Do not be lulled by green rhetoric into thinking that politicians have actually done anything much to stop global warming. CO2 emissions are rising along with consumer demand. This is a global problem and no nation has yet really demonstrated that it can reduce its level of emissions and consumption to below the 1997 level - which was the idea of the Kyoto Protocol. So far, it is all wishful thinking.