EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half: Raising Energy Productivity

The enormous potential for raising energy productivity becomes clear in comparisons among countries. Some countries in Europe have essentially the same living standard as the United States yet use scarcely half as much energy per person. But even the countries that use energy most efficiently are not close to realizing the full potential for doing so.7

In April 2001, the Bush administration released a new energy plan and called for construction of 1,300 new power plants by 2020. Bill Prindle of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy responded by pointing out how the country could eliminate the need for those plants and save money in the process. He ticked off several steps that would reduce the demand for electricity: Improving efficiency standards for household appliances would eliminate the need for 127 power plants. More stringent residential air conditioner efficiency standards would eliminate 43 power plants. Raising commercial air conditioner standards would eliminate the need for 50 plants. Using tax credits and energy codes to improve the efficiency of new buildings would save another 170 plants. Similar steps to raise the energy efficiency of existing buildings would save 210 plants. These five measures alone from the list suggested by Prindle would not only eliminate the need for 600 power plants, they would save money too.8

Of course, each country will have to fashion its own plan for raising energy productivity. Nevertheless, there are a number of common components. Some are quite simple but highly effective, such as banning the use of nonrefillable beverage containers, eliminating the use of incandescent light bulbs, doubling the fuel efficiency of automobiles, and redesigning urban transport systems to raise efficiency and increase mobility.

We know that it is possible to ban the use of nonrefillable beverage containers because Canada's Prince Edward Island has already done so. And Finland has a stiff tax on nonrefillables that has lead to 98-percent container reuse for soft drinks. These actions reduce energy use, water use, and garbage generation. A refillable glass bottle used over and over again requires about 10 percent as much energy per use as an aluminum can, even if the can is recycled. Cleaning, sterilizing, and relabeling a used bottle requires little energy, but recycling aluminum, which has a melting point of 660 degrees Celsius (1220 degrees Fahrenheit), is an energy-intensive process. Banning nonrefillables is a win-win policy initiative because it cuts both energy use and the flow of garbage.9

Another simple step is to replace all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), which use only one third as much electricity and last 10 times as long. In the United States, where 20 percent of all electricity is used for lighting, if each household replaced commonly used incandescents with compact fluorescents, electricity for lighting would be cut in half. The combination of lasting longer and using less electricity greatly outweighs the higher costs of the CFLs, yielding a risk-free return of some 25-40 percent a year. Worldwide, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs would save enough electricity to close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, and it could be accomplished easily within three years if we decided to do it.10

A third obvious area for raising energy efficiency is automobiles. In the United States, for example, if all motorists were to shift from their current vehicles with internal combustion engines to cars with hybrid engines, like the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight, gasoline use could be cut in half. Sales of hybrid cars, introduced into the U.S. market in 1999, reached an estimated 46,000 in 2003. (See Table 9-1.) Higher gasoline prices and a tax deduction of up to $2,000 for purchasing a low-emission vehicle are boosting sales. With U.S. auto manufacturers coming onto the market on a major scale soon, hybrid vehicle sales are projected to reach 1 million in 2007.11

A somewhat more complex way to raise energy productivity is to redesign urban transport systems. Most systems, now automobile-centered, are highly inefficient, with the majority of cars carrying only the driver. Replacing this with a more diverse system that would include a well-developed light-rail system complemented with buses as needed and that was bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly could increase mobility, reduce air pollution, and provide exercise. This is a win-win-win situation. Mobility would be greater, the air would be cleaner, and it would be easier to exercise. Fewer automobiles would mean that parking lots could be converted into parks, creating more civilized cities.

In order to begin shifting the mix away from automobiles, some cities now charge cars entering the city. Pioneered by Singapore many years ago, this approachis now being used in Oslo and Melbourne. And in February 2003, London introduced a similar system to combat congestion as well as pollution, charging $8 for any vehicle entering the central city during the working day. This immediately reduced traffic congestion by 24 percent.12


Table 9-1. Sales of Hybrid Cars in the United States, 1999-2003
2003 (est.)
Source: See endnote 11.

 Previous Table of Contents Next

7. Per capita energy consumption in U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), EIA Country Analysis Briefs, at www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs, updated May 2003.

8. Bill Prindle, "How Energy Efficiency Can Turn 1300 New Power Plants Into 170," fact sheet (Washington, DC: Alliance to Save Energy, 2 May 2001).

9. Brenda Platt and Doug Rowe, Reduce, Reuse, Refill! (Washington, DC: Institute for Local Self-Reliance, April 2002); energy in David Saphire, Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles (New York: INFORM, Inc., 1994).

10. Howard Geller, "Compact Fluorescent Lighting," American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy Technology Brief, at www.aceee.org, viewed 1 May 2003.

11. Gasoline savings based on Malcolm A. Weiss et al., Comparative Assessment of Fuel Cell Cars (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 2003); hybrid vehicle tax credit from National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), "Tax Deduction: Hybrid Electric Vehicles," fact sheet, from www.ott.doe.gov/hev/hev.html, January 2003; sales projections for 2007 based on Drew Winter and Kevin Kelly, "Hybrid Heartburn," Ward's Auto World, March 2003, pp. 44-51, and on Matt Nauman, "Hybrid Car Sales, Demand Picking Up," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 11 January 2003. Table 9-1 based on estimates by automakers and Automotive News, cited in "Hybrid Car Sales, Demand Picking Up," Contra Costa Times, 4 January 2003, with projections for 2003 in "Hybrid Demand High," Financial Times Information Limited, 29 March 2003.

12. John Whitlegg, editorial, World Transport Policy and Practice, vol. 8, no. 4 (2002), p. 5; Randy Kennedy, "The Day the Traffic Disappeared," New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2003, pp. 42-45.


Copyright © 2003 Earth Policy Institute