How Much Energy Do People Need for Health, Happiness, and Well-Being?

How Much Energy Do People Need for Health, Happiness, and Well-Being?

A new Stanford University study looks at human well-being and per capita energy use, confirming what we have often written in Treehugger: Yes, having lots of energy has made our lives richer and better, but you can have too much of a good thing.

Improved access to energy has made our modern civilization possible. As writer and professor Vaclav Smil wrote in "Energy and Civilization": "It has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments have combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that have created a great deal of real affluence, raised the average quality of life for most of the world’s population."

But energy is not fairly distributed. According to Max Roser, Our World in Data founder and director: "The first energy problem of the world is the problem of energy poverty—those that do not have sufficient access to modern energy sources suffer poor living conditions as a result."

We have often pointed out that rich countries use far too much energy and people experiencing energy poverty use too little. Now, the Stanford study looks at the correlation between energy use and well-being to find out how much energy per capita is enough to satisfy human needs.

“We need to address equity in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions," lead study author Rob Jackson told Stanford News. "Among the least sustainable ways to do that would be to raise everyone to the levels of consumption we have in the United States.”

The study looked at nine metrics of health and economic and environmental well-being: access to electricity, air quality, food supply, the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality), happiness, infant mortality, life expectancy, prosperity, and sanitation. The graph plots these against the national per capita energy supply in gigajoules. The team found life improves pretty much for everyone as energy consumption improves, although not at the same rate for every country. Some underperform with less improvement using more energy, and others—like Malta, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, Norway, Morocco, and Denmark—get more bang for their energy buck.

The global average energy consumption per capita is 79 gigajoules, with American consumption being 284 gigajoules per person. But the study finds almost all nine factors top out at about 75 gigajoules per person, a quarter of the American average, and the rest isn't adding much to our health, happiness, or well-being. As study co-author and climate scientist Anders Ahlström noted, "Energy supply is similar to income in that way: Excess energy supply has marginal returns.”

None of this will be news to regular Treehugger readers, although we rarely talk about gigajoules. The 75 gigajoules per person well-being target converts to 20,833 kilowatt/hours; this interactive version of the map makes it easier to see which countries fall in that happy range—which are over and which are under. It becomes pretty clear that Americans are pretty profligate and Canadians are even worse.

The study is also not the first to note that high energy used doesn't necessarily correlate with happiness and well-being. As Smil noted while looking at these kinds of numbers in his book, "Energy and Civilization":

The Stanford study, Smil, or for that matter, my book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," where I called for "simpler and sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to address over-consumption—consuming better but less," all say pretty much the same thing: At some point, burning more energy or emitting more carbon doesn't buy much more happiness or wellbeing. And that point might just be 75 gigajoules.

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