Is Efficient Sufficient?

Physical limits in the atmosphere’s ability to absorb additional greenhouse gas emissions without causing fundamental changes in the earth’s climate lend a new urgency to efforts to reduce energy consumption. Central to those efforts is the art of defining, testing, and specifying the energy efficiency of particular products such as appliances, televisions, homes and vehicles that account for the majority of consumer energy use.

Thus far, most governments have defined energy efficiency in a way that allows power consumption or annual energy use to rise steadily (and typically linearly) with product performance, size, amenity, or functionality. This helps consumers locate the least consumptive among a range of similar products, but does little to prevent absolute energy consumption from rising over time as products naturally migrate toward higher performance, larger size, and greater amenity and functionality. We have slowed the rate of growth compared to a business-as-usual scenario, but have not consistently turned absolute energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions downward. Yet the capacity to do so clearly exists; we can do better.

Given the steady growth in population and affluence, technology has been ineffective, by itself, in stemming that tide. Examples from past efforts in Europe and the United States to improve the efficiency of refrigerators, vehicles, and homes illustrate why present approaches to defining, encouraging, and regulating particular levels of efficiency are no longer achieving the energy savings we need.

What is needed instead is a more comprehensive view of the range of factors at work, so that more product attributes can be specified than merely efficiency, and so that the efficiency specifications themselves can be tailored to be more effective.

In turn, this prompts consideration of overall sufficiency limits on total annual energy use or greenhouse gas emissions from a particular product type, regardless of its size or performance.

Progressive efficiency specifications can in many cases be crafted where the allowable power consumption approaches those sufficiency limits and ceases to increase, no matter how much more performance or amenity is provided. ENERGY STAR has proposed exactly that in its version 5.0 television specification, which will help to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions even as televisions continue to grow in size. Such specifications, when employed by programs that also recover and recycle the energy-using products consumers are replacing, reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of fuels, increase product durability, and minimize hours of use, have the potential to finally bring overall energy use and greenhouse gas emissions downward.

Progressive efficiency standards alone will not be enough to turn down energy consumption, however. A range of changes are required in the way voluntary and mandatory efficiency policies and programs are implemented to systematically implement sufficiency and progressive efficiency concepts, keep specifications up to date, and discourage excessive consumption through price and information signals. Long term, such profound changes are our only hope for reversing the extraordinary global risks of climate change.

Report prepared for the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy with funding from the European Climate Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Program.

Information from: European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ECEEE)

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