The myth of energy consumption stabilization

US energy figures mislead the public to believe that consumption is leveling off. But this belies a hidden truth even experts often ignore.
Since the 1970s, US Energy Consumption per Capita [ECpC] has remained relatively flat or declined a bit. At the same time, the wealth of the US, measured in GDP per capita, kept growing. These figures lead many people to think that there is a decoupling between energy consumption and wealth. In other words, figures suggest that once people reach a certain standard of living, they won’t use more energy. It seems like good news for the environment. If this were the case, greenhouse emissions would be capped.

But figures need a closer look.
That would be like a lawyer claiming to be greener than a road contractor just because the lawyer’s firm uses less energy on an everyday basis.  This is not a fair claim. The lawyer needs the roads for doing business as much as the contractor needs the lawyer’s legal services. In reality, the environment footprint of each should be averaged.


At a global scale, something similar is happening. World economies are so entangled that it is not fair to analyze one country at a time. Each year more industries in the US are moving abroad. As a result, high energy intensive jobs, like welders or machinists are disappearing. At the same time, low energy intensive jobs, like shrinks or salespeople, are on the rise.  
It is easy to stabilize the energy use of one country by moving the more energy-intensive industries to another. But the US needs the goods that are manufactured elsewhere. In order to produce a fair environmental footprint analysis of the US economy, energy intensive industry “delocalization” should somehow be taken into account.
China is becoming the world manufacturing powerhouse. Many manufacturing industries are moving to China. Also, China is an economy similar in size to the US.  If we pair China-USA for our environmental footprint analysis, even though it is not very scientific, that would give us some results closer to reality. It would be like averaging the lawyer and the contractor footprints.
The figure below shows the Total Primary ECpC for the US, China and a weighted average between the two. The results are quite interesting. Average ECpC is still on the rise. There is no decoupling between energy consumption and wealth in this two-country planet.

Figure 1: Primary Energy Consumption per Capita (Million Btu per Person) 1

Furthermore, if we add up the total energy consumption of China and the US, see figure below, the net result is appalling. As it is, on this imaginary two-country planet, energy consumption – and greenhouse emissions - are skyrocketing and there are no signs of slowing down!! Lord help us all! 
Figure 2: Total Primary Energy Consumption (Quadrillion Btu) 1


(1)  Source: US Energy Information Administration - www.eia.gov

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