Energy Use vs. Living Standards

Nationmaster is a terrific resource for world statistics and country comparisons. I was interested to compare energy use with living standards. Is it possible to maintain a decent quality of life with low per capita energy consumption? Which nations are leading by that measure?

Here’s a scatterplot of primary energy consumption per capita vs. the Human Development Index (a combination of life expectancy, literacy, education, and GDP-based standards of living).

I tend to give the HDI axis a bit more weight. The best performer, then, is Portugal. Argentina and Chile are close with lower energy consumption but also lower HDI.

Following those is a tight group of developed nations with higher per capita energy consumption and higher HDI: Greece, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, UK, Switzerland, Japan and Germany.

In the category of very low per capita energy consumption, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Philippines rate the best. Brazil and Mexico also do well.

Another question along these lines would be, “Is it possible to maintain a decent quality of life with low per capita fossil fuel consumption?” In that case we would differentiate between fossil fuels and other energy sources that have a relatively small effect on global warming, like nuclear, hydro, biomass and other renewables. One way to measure that is by CO2 emissions per capita.


This chart shows the comparison between CO2 emissions per capita and the Human Development Index. Uruguay and Costa Rica are the best performers. The other top performing countries can be approximately classified into tiers:

High (6-7 tons) emissions: Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal.

Medium (2-4 tons) emissions: Argentina, Lithuania, Chile, Latvia, Cuba, Panama, Brazil.

Low (0-2 tons) emissions: Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Philippines, Peru, Armenia, Albania, Columbia.

All figures are for 2003, so this is a snapshot of a single year. A better chart would show averages of, say, a recent 5-year period.

I’ve left out the small island nations for the sake of simplicity. The United States, of course, is at the extreme far end of the chart with 20 tons CO2 per person.

5 responses to “Energy Use vs. Living Standards

  1. Doug McEvers

    Conservation is the most cost effective energy saving resource known to man, plus it directly reduces CO2 emmissions. As a builder, I built in the 1980’s, a number of homes that use 1/4 to 1/3 of the energy for heating and cooling as new homes being built today. The superinsulated homes used about 1.25 btu’s per sq.ft. per heating degree day (btu/sf/hdd), with the new technology available today (better windows and heat recovery ventilation), advanced superinsulation yields a btu/sf/hdd around .5, comparible to the European Passive House. In other words a 3,000 sq. ft home in Minneapolis with natural gas @ $1.10 per therm will heat for $136.90 for the season. Much can be done with existing housing as well, in my home built by others in 1979, with an insulation upgrade and furnace change, I have cut the energy usage nearly in half, now about 2 btu/sf/hdd, the average new home in Mpls/St.Paul is 3.45 btu/sf/hdd.

  2. Doug McEvers

    From a distance, the zero energy home looks like a good deal, but upon closer inspection many of the new zero energy homes are not affordable, somewhat like hydrogen fuel cell cars today. I really feel the European Passive House has all the bases covered, they are basically superinsulated homes employing the latest advances in equipment, specifically HRV’s and windows, they are also built very airtight and maximize solar gain. I have no problem with onsite energy generation, but the first and most cost effective measures is to minimize energy needs for the building.

  3. Laurence Aurbach Post author

    I really feel the European Passive House has all the bases covered

    According to the Passive House Institute, construction using Passive House standards is between $9.22/sf and $12.14/sf more costly than conventional construction. The Institute says that government policies make Passive House construction more economical in Germany.

    At this point, it seems to me that policies that make Passive Houses more economical would be a good idea in America too.

    the first and most cost effective measures is to minimize energy needs for the building.

    To my way of thinking, we also need to improve efficiency in transportation and industry. They’re all pretty nearly equally important. In transportation we need to reduce the demand for vehicle miles traveled, and we need to increase the efficiency of vehicles. In industry, there has been a lot accomplished since the 1970s, but there’s still a lot more efficiency to be had from industrial processes.

  4. Doug McEvers

    With current energy prices, energy efficient homes in the U.S. cost less per month to own and operate than typically built homes, the extra P&I is more than offset by the energy savings. RESNET is working to get the mortgage industry to recognize this, the bottom line, energy efficiency is a good financial investment. Agreed on the need to reduce the miles traveled in autos, have read through your site, a tip of the hat to you for the work you are doing. I only have experience in building construction as far as reducing energy consumption goes, but I feel the U.S. could reduce energy use by 1/2 in all areas and not break a sweat, this would put us on par with France and Germany in btu’s used per dollar of GDP. Efficient use of energy is the next growth industry, we must get on board or get left behind.

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