Survey, survey on the wall, who is the greenest of them all?

Chongqing, China

Which countries take the energy efficiency prize? The answer may surprise you.

So many targets have been set by the world’s leading economies on becoming more energy efficient that ranking the 21 countries in ABB’s latest global energy efficiency report can only spell trouble. But so rich is the survey in data about using energy more productively that at least a “top five” can be identified before things get too sticky.

The difficulties of assessment compel an initial caveat about the rules. Not all the 21 countries in the latest report (there were only 19 last time) can be ranked, as the differences between them become increasingly marginal. Candidacy for the “top five” is based primarily on the scale of improvement made in recent years, with some extra weighting going to the biggest economies or most populous countries.

The ranking also tries to distinguish between real achievement and political bluster. Every country covered has targets of varying boldness for greater energy efficiency and lower greenhouse gases. Whether states should be judged by ambition, or by results, is arguably moot. The same applies to whether allowance should be made for countries that remain relative laggards, but which are still at relatively earlier stages of their industrial development. (Welcome to the controversy that dogs so many United Nations climate change conferences).

Our ranking endeavors to weigh all those considerations, and more. While priority goes to achievement, some consideration is also given to ambition, even when not fully realized. Similarly, allowance is made (albeit entirely subjectively) for a country’s relative economic development. That means modest progress by a nation still rapidly industrializing may not necessarily count more poorly than a bigger leap by a more mature economy, where the emphasis is more on replacing existing power generating or heavy industrial infrastructure, rather meeting basic needs.

Finally, some concession – albeit again highly subjective – is made for three other crucial variables that hinder a level playing field. First, the countries covered have significantly different energy prices: traditionally cheap energy in regions like Russia and the Middle East, for example, have – generally speaking – been disincentives to greater energy efficiency.

A nation’s industrial mix adds further complications: South Korea, for instance, is arguably handicapped by its relatively large heavy industrial base. Though there have been significant improvements in energy efficiency, the sheer weight of energy intensive activities such as chemicals, shipbuilding and the like can be handicaps. Finally, were countries differently exposed to the severe economic downturn of 2009, which in certain cases led to a reduction in industrial output and hence lower energy consumption. While none escaped unscathed, the “great recession” that is only now gradually ebbing touched primarily the US and western Europe, and had somewhat less impact on other regions.

With all that said, here is the list: Top slot goes – controversially no doubt – to China. When measured against the previous energy efficiency report of 2011, Beijing’s progress may appear relatively modest. But taken over a longer span from 1990 (also covered in the reports), the achievements of what will soon be the world’s biggest economy appear Herculean (even if China remains one of the world’s biggest polluters).

Second and third places go to the UK and Germany respectively, though there is arguably barely a hair’s breadth between them. The reports show both have made strides in energy efficiency, both over the shorter and longer spans. Moreover, both have been among the pioneers in harnessing alternative energy sources for power generation – notably wind. And both share some of the most ambitious targets for longer term energy efficiency gains and greenhouse gas reductions.

Fourth is the US. Arguably, the world’s biggest economy deserves greater recognition, given what has been managed via voluntary measures and private companies’ wish to maximize profits by growing more energy efficient, rather than government diktat. But the US remains complex, with environmental policy in Washington as much a political minefield as ever, handicapping America’s claim to leadership.

Finally comes Russia, another controversial choice, given the former communist economy’s reputation for energy wastage and pollution. Traditionally low energy prices and a command economy meant energy efficiency were seldom priorities. But, as with China – albeit more slowly – progress has been made, especially when judged over the longer span, allowing some cautious hope that much will follow.

Editor’s note: this article was written by freelance writer Haig Simonian and published by Ilona Braverman. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of ABB or its employees. 

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About the author

Ilona Braverman

I am the Newsroom Manager with the corporate communications team. Prior to moving to Zurich, I spent over a decade writing, producing, marketing and production coordinating for Fox News in New York City. When I am not working, or enjoying all of the beautiful cities around me, I am busy dancing, cooking or probably making everyone around me howl with laughter.
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