The US and China: ever more efficient giants

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How do the world’s biggest and second-biggest economies stack up when it comes to energy efficiency?

Cliché would have it that the US squanders power on ice-cold air conditioning and gas guzzlers. China, meanwhile, is castigated as one of the world’s worst polluters as ever more coal-fired power stations spew out greenhouse gasses to fuel the nation’s race for growth. By way of reminder: in 2009, China overtook the US as the world’s biggest energy consumer.

Certainly, the historical record weighs. China’s energy consumption has leapt by an average of almost 8 percent a year since 2001 – nearly three times the rate of the previous decade.  The figures are almost as striking for electricity alone, with average annual growth of 8 percent in the 1990s, hitting 12 percent a year on average between 2000 and 2011.

Likewise in the US, total energy consumption per head is about 65 percent above the average for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the rich nations’ club. Electricity consumption alone is 60 percent higher than the OECD average.

But a series of energy efficiency reports by Enerdata, published by ABB, suggest today’s reality is more nuanced than historical record. While the US and China (forecast soon to overtake the former to become the world’s biggest economy) gulp down vast quantities of power, both have become significantly more efficient in recent years.

READ: Even on energy efficiency, the EU speaks with multiple voices

Energy efficiency in China, for example, has been improving significantly thanks to massive investment in new electricity generating capacity – allowing retirement of smaller, older, less efficient and generally more polluting plants – and greater environmental consciousness. In the US, cost pressures and environmental awareness have similarly helped progress.

In China, for instance, total energy intensity – meaning the amount of energy consumed for every so-called “unit of industrial value added” – has fallen markedly. Total energy intensity dropped by almost 5 percent a year between 1990 and 2011 – putting China among the top 10 improvers globally. True, the rate of decline slowed in the second half of the period (to 2.8 percent a year since 2000). But China’s performance remains creditable, with industry alone accounting for almost one-third of the change.

In the US, the report identifies “noticeable progress” in reducing energy intensity, with advances in both industry and in power generation – a major energy consumer in its own right. Industrial energy intensity dropped by 2.3 percent a year between 200 and 2011. Although the US data is complicated by some structural factors, the overall direction has been convincingly downwards.

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Of course, how the two economic giants have gone about becoming more energy efficient has differed markedly – reflecting radically disparate political systems. In China, the central government’s 12th Five Year Plan ordained a 16 percent target for reducing energy intensity, compared with 2010 levels. A staggering $372 billion is to be invested in schemes to save energy and tackle pollution. A focal point is cutting coal consumption and thereby addressing the air pollution problems plaguing many large cities, as well as causing significant greenhouse gas emissions. Telling, a new study has noted life expectancy in northern china, where the most coal is burned and the air is most polluted, is significantly shorter than in the south.

“China has made energy efficiency and conservation it highest priority energy strategy,” says the report.

In the US, where energy policy remains highly controversial politically, legislation to improve energy efficiency has tended to go hand-in-hand with voluntary agreements in industry. Here companies seem driven as much by the profit motive as exhortations from the administration.

All in all, both countries have made big strides – improvements laudable not just in absolute terms, but all the more significant given the role of two such giants as examples to others. Whether, of course, it’s all enough, given the pace of global warming and potentially catastrophic climate change, is another matter.

To view our interactive maps, click here.

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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