The Worst Way to Measure Energy Efficiency

The international focus on “energy intensity” is hurting the fight against climate change.
Smog in central Shanghai. oliverlaumann/Flickr

Smog in central Shanghai. oliverlaumann/Flickr

It is widely assumed that over the coming decades, increased energy efficiency will help the world meet its energy needs and reduce carbon emissions. That may be true, but recent research suggests that energy intensity—a widely used way of measuring efficiency—isn’t the right metric.

Energy intensity is a simple ratio: energy use per dollar of GDP. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the energy intensity of the U.S. economy declined by 1.6 percent per year from 1985 to 2004, suggesting that we’re doing more with less energy.

Energy companies have embraced this idea: “Energy per unit of income as measured by GDP continues to fall, and at an accelerating rate,” asserts BP. “This is true in our outlook to 2030 not only for the global average, but for almost all of the key countries and regions. The combination of energy efficiency gains and a long-term structural shift towards less energy intensive activities as economies develop underpins this trend.” Similarly, ExxonMobil’s Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040 projects that economic output will increase by 80 percent while OECD energy demand remains flat, because “[g]lobal energy demand does not rise as dramatically as economic growth as a result of declining energy intensity.”

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.