Climate Change

Here's why the increasing demand for energy is a blind spot in the fight against climate change

man's hands holding a lightbulb energy

The greenest energy is the energy we don’t use. Image: Unsplash/Riccardo Annandale

Sara Vad Sørensen
Head of Analytics, Group Communication and Sustainability, Danfoss
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Climate Change

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  • The wildfires, crop shortages and heat waves of 2022 alone highlight that climate change is an immediate, not a future, crisis.
  • While ambitious efforts are under way to reduce emissions in the long term, we also need short-term plans that make an impact now.
  • Reducing global energy demand and decelerating consumption can close the gap between promises and actions in tackling the climate crisis.

2022 was the year of sustained droughts resulting in widespread wildfires, crop shortages and heat waves across the globe, making it crystal clear that climate change is an immediate, not a future, crisis.

Paradoxically, as a group of leading climate scientists pointed out in April 2022, the political responses to the crisis have so far been centred around long-term climate goals instead of immediate action.

Governments have made headlines with ambitious mid-century targets but largely neglect robust short-term plans that make an impact at the most crucial time: now.

At the time of writing, only 24 countries have come forward with new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) since COP26, although this was explicitly requested in the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Global demand for energy needs to be reduced

One issue that has not been adequately addressed is the global demand for energy. We are seeing a massive and necessary build-out to tackle the supply side of the green equation through upscaling of renewable energy, but even these investments in green energy will be not enough to end fossil fuels’ stranglehold on the world.

To grow the role of electricity in the energy mix, it is a fundamental yet often overlooked fact that we need to reduce demand for energy in the first place. As the graph illustrates, if we don’t pay attention to the acceleration in energy consumption, the build-out of renewables won’t be even near sufficient.

Worldwide energy consumption since 1800
Worldwide energy consumption since 1800 Image: Our World In Data

It will become extremely difficult and more expensive to meet our global climate goals if we don’t address the rising demand for energy, especially in developing economies.

The good news is that we can solve this imbalance by prioritizing the deployment of energy efficiency solutions. Energy efficiency simply means using less energy to perform the same task – that is, eliminating energy waste.

Energy is being wasted everywhere across multiple sectors every day. In the transport sector, inefficient vehicles and ships burn much more fuel than necessary, while in the industrial sector, inefficient electric motors waste energy and the excess heat that is generated from production is not being utilized for anything.

And in buildings – both commercial and residential – vast amounts of energy is wasted every day because simple and relatively low-cost measures to monitor and control the energy used are not in place.

We have the technologies to eliminate this waste; now we need the action.

Demand for cooling growing as temperatures rise

Cooling is essential for storage and transport of food and medicine. In many parts of the world, space cooling keeps us healthy and productive at work, school and home.

As economies grow and adapt to a warmer climate, especially in the Global South, growing demand for cooling has the potential to drive a substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency’s forecast of the global air conditioner stock from 1990-2050 is a stark reminder that cooling demand is growing exponentially.

Global air conditioner stock, 1990-2050
Global air conditioner stock, 1990-2050 Image: IEA

Space cooling accounted for nearly 16% of the total electricity used in buildings, or about 2,000 terawatt hour (TWh) of final electricity consumption in 2021. This put pressure on electricity grids because space cooling can represent more than 70% of peak residential electrical demand on extremely hot days in some countries. Energy demand for space cooling in buildings could more than triple by 2050.

However, with existing energy efficient solutions we can curb emissions from cooling. In air conditioning units there is a huge variation in the energy they consume of up to 70% difference. We can almost halve global energy consumption for cooling simply by choosing efficient options. We can also get better at matching cooling to our needs.

In Spain, offices are only cooled to 27°C in the summer months. There is much we can learn from such examples. Politically, energy efficient cooling can be accelerated by setting minimum standards.

Have you read?

While highly efficient air-conditioning units are available on the market, most efficiency standards – and consequently the units purchased by consumers – have two-to-three times lower efficiencies than the ones of best available technologies. Efficiency standards are a key measure to avoid the lock-in of inefficient air-conditioning units in coming decades.

Solutions also exist to reduce energy waste in food storage and transport. Readily available cold chain technology can reduce food loss by up to 40% in developing countries.

Packing, storing, and transporting perishables at the right temperature extends their lifetime and ensures that more food reaches the tables of a growing population. Indeed, it is estimated that 14% of food consumed in developing countries could be saved if the same cold chain infrastructure which is used in developed countries was available locally.

Global push for energy efficiency can help reduce emissions

Cooling is but one example of the potential in addressing the demand side of the green equation. As the IEA states, accelerated action on energy efficiency and related avoided energy demand can help avoid around 95 exajoules of final energy demand in 2030. That is equivalent to the final energy consumption of China.

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How is the World Economic Forum facilitating the transition to clean energy?

With a global push for energy efficiency, we can close the gap between promises and action and reduce global emissions by an additional 5 gigatonnes per year by 2030 – this is about one third of the reductions needed to meet net zero. The solution is right in front of us: the greenest energy is the energy we don’t use.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Climate ChangeEnergy Transition
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