Global energy intensity rising
Posted:26 Sep 2011
According to the Worldwatch Institute, global energy intensity has been growing faster than the global economy for the past two years. Worldwatch observed that worldwide energy intensity grew 1.35 per cent last year, surpassing global economic growth. Unless economies all over the world shift to sustainable development, global energy intensity will keep on increasing. Energy intensity is total energy consumption divided by gross world product. Between 1981 and 2010, it decreased by about 20.5 per cent or 0.8 per cent annually. “During this period of decline, most developed countries restructured their economies, and energy-intensive heavy industries accounted for a shrinking share of production,” stated Haibing Ma, manager of Worldwatch’s China programme. “New technologies applied to energy production and consumption significantly improved efficiency in almost every aspect of the economy,” particularly during the surge of ‘knowledge-based economy’ from 1991 to 2000. Global economic productivity increased without parallel increases in energy use.
Worldwatch observed that worldwide energy efficiency had been increasing steadily until between 2004 and 2008 where it plummeted with an average annual growth of 1.87 per cent. Starting in 2008 to 2009, however, energy intensity again bumped up, experiencing the first rise in three decades. “Increases in economic energy intensity are especially discouraging, even when temporary,” said Robert Engelman, executive director at Worldwatch. “With both population and consumption growing worldwide, the capacity of the world’s economy to require less energy for each unit of output has been a rare positive trend for the environment. We need to find less energy-intensive ways to put people back to work and improve economic conditions.” In addition to technological advances, price developments play a key role in determining overall energy use. World crude oil prices more than tripled between 2004 and 2008—the fastest rise since the oil crisis of the late 1970s—contributing to the sharp decline in energy intensity during that period. However, after the second half of 2008, when international oil prices dropped 75 per cent, global energy intensity started rising.
Energy intensity is declining in many advanced economies, including the United States, Germany and Japan. China may have made the most progress worldwide with a 65 per cent decline in energy intensity in the past 30 years. Newly industrialized and transitional countries have experienced more turbulent energy intensity trends. South Korea’s energy intensity increased during the country’s rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s, but declined sharply following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Since the early 2000s, the Korean government and industry have sought actively to shift the country’s energy use patterns by focusing more on advanced technology R&D and clean energy initiatives.
Global energy intensity is likely to keep rising in the next few years as the world continues to rely on large-scale infrastructure development as a means to create jobs and bring the global economy out of recession. However, South Korea’s switch to a more environment-friendly development pattern may mirror global trends. In the long term, a green transition could boost new industries, including clean technology and renewable energy, and cause global energy intensity to decline.
“The area of saving energy and using it more efficiently is one of the two key components of a sustainable energy transition, the other one being renewable energy production,” said Alexander Ochs, director of Worldwatch’s climate and energy programme. “Our research has shown that 50 per cent or more of global electricity demands can be delivered by renewable energy if—but only if—renewable energy is implemented in tandem with energy efficiency.”
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