How much energy powers a good life? Less than you're using, says a new report
DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:
Living a happy, healthy life takes energy. A new Stanford University study looked at just how much energy it requires. The study found that Americans use well over the necessary amount.
NPR's Laura Benshoff is here to unpack what those findings mean for climate change. Hey, Laura.
LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Hey there.
ESTRIN: Hi. So first of all, what is the measure of a good life? I guess you could call that a philosophical question. But seriously, how did the researchers measure the amount of energy needed to live a good life?
BENSHOFF: They looked around the world at the building blocks for a long and healthy life using the United Nations' goals - so things like having enough food, access to electricity, life expectancy and happiness - and at how much energy that takes. And what they found is that the magic number is about 75 gigajoules of energy per person per year. And one gigajoule is roughly the amount of energy contained in eight gallons of gasoline. So for comparison, Americans use 284 gigajoules a year per capita, nearly four times that sweet spot.
ESTRIN: OK. So we know that scientists have been warning that Americans' energy habits need to change in order to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. So what does this new research say about what kinds of habits that we need to change?
BENSHOFF: I'm going to let the lead author, Stanford environmental scientist Rob Jackson, answer that one.
ROB JACKSON: The world can't support 7 or 8 billion people living at a level of consumption that we have in the United States. It's not possible regardless of whether everything is clean, green infrastructure.
BENSHOFF: So there's a lot of focus on changing where energy comes from. That's what he's referring to - switching from coal and gas to renewable sources, for example. But this study emphasizes the demand side and these kinds of overlooked but really important tools for reducing energy demand, such as conservation and efficiency. And the study makes the case that as Americans, we really can trim that demand and not actually be any worse off.
ESTRIN: OK. So what can Americans do to use less energy?
BENSHOFF: There are things people can do, there are things the government can do and there are things that the government can help people do. For example, transportation is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the U.S. and the second biggest user of energy. Jackson says on the individual level, people can choose to take fewer car trips, fewer plane trips.
But another expert I spoke with, Sarah Ladislaw, works with the group RMI to sort of speed up the clean energy transition in the U.S. And she says the government can make those decisions easier by investing in different modes of transportation.
SARAH LADISLAW: More sort of bus rapid transit or metros but also, like, more bike paths and places to walk. And all of that is policies that are designed to try and enable people to make those better decisions.
BENSHOFF: She says it's exciting that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has funds for these things.
Another area to reduce our energy demand is at home. The International Energy Agency estimated that Americans can cut our home energy consumption by between 16- and 20% by changing behaviors, like hanging clothes to dry or cooling our homes room by room. And Ladislaw says this is another area where governments can incentivize people and businesses to make an upfront investment in more efficient home systems that will lower our energy demand over time.
ESTRIN: So if the U.S. is using too much energy, what does this research tell us about places in the world where people don't have enough energy?
BENSHOFF: There's a real equity issue here, and helping people around the world get access to dependable, safe energy is baked into global climate change plans even as hyper-consuming countries need to cut back. This research shows that we can get there without all turning into hyper-consuming Americans, basically.
ESTRIN: NPR's Laura Benshoff, thanks.
BENSHOFF: Thank you so much.
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