Apr 12, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Where the energy link to well-being starts fraying

Illustration of a lightbulb with a filament lit in the shape of a smiley face
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Human well-being is strongly tethered to energy access, but a new study finds high-consuming countries could scale back consumption without sacrificing health and happiness.

Driving the news: The Stanford-led paper in Ecosphere analyzes energy use in 140 nations from 1971-2018 against nine metrics like life expectancy, infant mortality, happiness, economic performance and more.

What they found: Increased use and well-being move in tandem. But that correlation ends at consumption levels far below the average in the United States and other wealthy nations.

The big picture: Billions of people need more energy access to boost well-being. Roughly 1.2 billion lack electricity access and 2.7 billion use dangerous, polluting stoves.

"That billions of other people could in principle reduce energy use with little or no loss in health, happiness, or other outcomes is more surprising, reducing the need for some additional energy infrastructure and increasing global equity," it states.

Zoom in: Global average per-capita energy use is 79 gigajoules (GJ) annually. Dozens of countries are below this amount.

Performance under almost all metrics improves steeply with greater access but plateaus below that level. The U.S. averages 284 GJ annually per capita, per a Stanford summary.

The bottom line: "If distributed equitably, today’s average global energy consumption of 79 GJ person could, in principle, allow everyone on Earth to realize 95% or more of maximum performance across all metrics."

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