A joint study by UNIL, the University of Leeds, and Yale University shows that in 30 years’ time it will be possible to meet everyone’s needs while protecting the planet.
World energy consumption in 2050 could be brought back to the level seen in the 1960s while supporting a decent standard of living for a population three times the size. This is the conclusion of a new study by a team at the University of Leeds, working to UNIL professor Julia Steinberger. The research, a joint project by UNIL, the University of Leeds in the UK and Yale University in the United States, is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.
The study has estimated the energy resources needed to provide everyone with a decent standard of living in 2050 - meeting all their basic human needs, for shelter, mobility, food and hygiene. It was also assumed that the whole population should have access to modern, high quality healthcare, education and information technology.
The findings reveal that the entire global population (expected to be 10 billion by 2050) could be provided with decent living standards for less than 40% of today’s global energy. This figure is four times lower than International Energy Agency forecasts, based on the continuation of current trends.
This level of global energy consumption is roughly the same as that recorded during the 1960s, when the population was only three billion.
The authors emphasize that achieving this would require sweeping changes in current consumption, widespread deployment of advanced technologies, and the elimination of mass global inequalities.
The findings show that the energy required to provide a decent living could likely be delivered entirely by clean sources and rebut the claim that reducing global consumption to sustainable levels requires an end to modern comforts and a “return to the dark ages”.
Comparison of 119 countries
The study calculated minimum final energy requirements, both direct and indirect, to provide decent living standards. Final energy is that delivered to the consumer’s door, for example heating, electricity or the petrol that goes into a car, rather than the energy embedded in the fuels themselves - much of which is lost at power stations in the case of fossil fuels.
The team also built a final-energy model, which builds upon a list of basic needs that underpin human well-being previously developed by Dr Narasimha Rao and Dr Jihoon Min.
The study then compared current final energy consumption across 119 countries with estimates of final energy needed for decent living. It found that the vast majority of countries are living in significant surplus. In countries that are today’s highest per-capita consumers, energy cuts of nearly 95% are possible while still providing decent living standards to all.
“Within our grasp”
UNIL professor Julia Steinberger, study co-author and leader of the “Living Well Within Limits” project at the University of Leeds, said: “While government officials are levelling charges that environmental activists ‘threaten our way of life’ it is worth re-examining what that way of life should entail. It is clearly within our grasp to provide a decent life for everyone while still protecting our climate and ecosystems.”
Study lead author Dr Joel Millward-Hopkins from the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds added: “Currently, only 17 % of global final energy consumption is from non-fossil fuel sources. But that is nearly 50 % of what we estimate is needed to provide a decent standard of living for all in 2050.”
There are long-standing arguments that solutions for reducing energy consumption already exist. “What we add is that the material sacrifices needed are far smaller than many popular narratives imply”, said Dr Millward-Hopkins.