Wasteful Ways?


"The United States has 6 percent of the world's population but uses 25 percent of all the energy." In fact, the U.S. figure is 24 percent and shrinking, but never mind. Green groups and politicians cite this factoid any time they want to make Americans feel guilty for our wasteful ways. But a study of comparative energy efficiency, released in March by the Global Climate Coalition, a business group based in Washington, D.C., suggests that Americans might not be such profligate energy users after all.

The report, prepared by the Washington consulting firm EOP Group, compares energy efficiency among seven industrial countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Italy) from 1970 to the present. Because comprehensive data don't exist for all areas, the study compares the biggest energy users in three categories: transportation (measuring automobile consumption),residential (home heating), and industrial (manufacturing).

Using such yardsticks as energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product, the study concludes that Americans indeed consume more energy than residents of other industrialized nations. Overall energy consumption, however, may not accurately reflect how efficiently that energy is being used.

For instance, U.S. residential energy use per capita is 1.5 times higher than in Germany and 3 times higher than in Japan. But the average American home is twice as large as those elsewhere, and more of our homes have central heating (only 6 percent of Japanese dwellings have central heat), which both boosts energy use and makes our homes comfortable places to live. Adjusting for differences in climate, dwelling size, and types of fuel, only Japanese residents use less energy than Americans.

And European and Japanese transportation energy efficiency is actually declining. Car owners in Japan and Europe are moving away from minicompact cars (1.5-liter engines or smaller) and buying cars with larger engines that get poorer gasoline mileage. American consumers are also buying fewer minicompacts, but they're not buying full-size models, choosing compacts and mid-size cars instead. From 1973 to 1988, average U.S. new-car fuel economy has improved by nearly 5 percent a year, almost double the gains elsewhere.

While each country's manufacturers have reduced their energy intensity (in thousands of BTUs per dollar of finished product) since 1971, U.S. firms have cut their energy intensity the most, by 50 percent. Japan cut energy intensity 49 percent, Germany 33 percent.

Americans use 30 percent less energy per unit of GDP than in 1970, a significant efficiency gain compared with our competitors. And most of Americans' "excess" energy use takes place because the continental United States is a huge land mass with a scattered population.

The report concludes that government policies ostensibly designed to enhance energy efficiency should be based on their own economic merits, not on the notion that the United States needs to "catch up" with some other country.