What do we use energy for?

With higher incomes, people consume a wider range of energy-intensive products and services. Therefore, inequality in energy footprints is large but varies with consumption purpose.
Published in Social Sciences
What do we use energy for?

In 2016, my studies brought me from Europe to India. A key moment awaking me to the perils of inequality occurred in New Delhi, at a large shopping mall. To arrive there, we would take the auto rickshaw and pass by a stunning diversity of neighborhoods, starting from a well-protected gated community where I was living, to people living in tents, to rudimentary settlements in the midst of a forking road, with children covered in mud, wearing no shoes, breathing in fumes all day long and nonetheless waving and smiling at us foreigners. It was only a 10 minute ride, but provided me with much food for thought. At the mall, the final straw was a Rolls-Royce entering the front court, followed by a Lamborghini, whose occupants waited for their chauffeurs to open the doors for them, before entering the shopping mall.

From then on, I could not stop thinking about the insane gulf between the vast resources and energy used up for just one day of the Rolls-Royce owner, compared to how little is provided to the children living in the fork in the road.

In 2018, I was offered the opportunity to work on exactly this problem. I started a PhD with Prof. Julia Steinberger and Dr. Anne Owen, who likewise wanted to explore inequality in energy consumption, across countries and income classes. In particular, we wanted to measure both direct and indirect energy consumption. Direct energy includes, for example, heat and electricity used in one’s home. Indirect energy is the energy embodied in the production of goods and services that people consume, including trade across the world, like for instance in the Rolls-Royce which I saw. I was excited. Could we really measure the disparities I observed in Delhi?

Of course, the reality of research is never at the height of our ambitions. The truth is that we hardly have any data available on the consumption of the super-rich, the people who own a Rolls-Royce. Nevertheless, we assembled an unprecedented dataset integrating expenditure, energy use and supply chain data, covering a vast range of income classes in-between countries and within (using International Energy Agency, World Bank and Eurostat data). It is easier said than done: the process took months, but at the end, we had a fully functional energy-extended input-output model (using the GTAP database), allocating energy footprints to income classes and products, spanning 86 countries across the globe.

Our results debunked the narrative that with growing income, consumption will inevitably be less energy intense and more environmentally friendly. Instead, we show that people with high incomes make use of a significant range of products and services that are very energy intensive. This consumption is often related to land and air transport and thereby also directly related to the use of fossil-fuels – the principal contributor to global warming. Most people on the planet, however, are excluded from this energy feast.

This insight not only reveals today’s utter energy disparity in energy consumption, but casts a dark shadow on the future. If people and politics are not going to let go of their obsession with economic growth, we will likely see ever more energy-intensive consumption. This growth alone makes a global transition to 100% renewable energy very hard, if not impossible.

Thinking back to all the children on Delhi’s roads, it would be a shame if we could not find a better purpose to apply the money that we earn and the energy that we harness, other than an expensive car.


Poster image: Unequal Scenes, @johnny_miller_photography. 

Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J.K. Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nat Energy 5, 231–239 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560...

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