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What in the world are we doing to conserve energy?

Conservation messages on a chalkboard

Canadians are pretty dialed in to energy conservation, thanks to years of awareness programs generated by utilities and governments.

But what about the rest of the world? Is energy conservation a universal priority? Are some regions behind, or ahead? Are there differences in emphasis based on culture?

The big picture: Energy use in other countries

Google the term "Global Energy Conservation", and you get over 60,000 hits. Rather than try to decipher this dizzying array of information, I took a shortcut and started my research with two international studies — one from the World Energy Council, and the other from the International Energy Agency.

Both agreed on two points:

  • Better conservation depends on people being more "energy literate".
  • Energy needs to be priced at its "true" cost (including carbon impacts) instead of being subsidized.

In simple English: if we understand how we're squandering energy, and pay more for our power, we'll waste less. Pretty common sense.

But common sense didn't always become common practice. For example, the U.S. and Canada still enjoy subsidized, comparatively inexpensive energy. As a result, we use 2.5 times more than Europe, and a staggering three times more than China.

If our energy prices were allowed to rise, chances are our appetite for energy conservation and innovation would rise as they did in Japan and Denmark. But that raises the difficult question — would we allow our politicians to implement price rises?

Developing world (and renters) use older appliances

So there were radical disparities in energy usage around the world. But where were the interesting regional conservation quirks?

One answer was appliances. North America, Europe, and parts of Latin America and Asia have successful energy efficiency programs for appliances. These programs even have well-known certifications, like ENERGY STAR®.

There was no such success in the developing world. Given the high energy costs in places like Africa, this was puzzling.

Turns out the culprit here is secondhand appliances. In much of the developing world, appliances are passed from owner to owner for decades. While this significantly reduces resources and energy used in manufacturing, it greatly boosts energy usage on a day-to-day basis.

The same behaviour is common here in the world of rented property. Rental units in North America are fitted with ENERGY STAR appliances 17% of the time, vs 45% in homes occupied by their owners.

Efficiency offset by overconsumption

So if the developed world is more tuned into efficiency, why does our consumption continue to skyrocket? This question led to another series of cultural idiosyncrasies.

Our homes are more efficient — but they're bigger, and there are more of them.

Even worse, they're filled with power-sucking gadgets. Yes, the new generation of TV's sip, rather than suck power (which wasn't the case a few years ago). But more of us are opting for bigger, more power-hungry screens, and we've got three or four instead of one.

In North America, we also don't think much about phantom power usage. Our computers, stereos and microwaves all use power while they're turned off — but unlike Europe, Asia and Australia, things like wall outlets with power-off switches aren't common.

As efficiency rises, we're also seeing the rise of false economies. For example, we're buying more efficient CFL lightbulbs — but then leaving them on all the time.

What makes us the same? What makes us different?

My final exploration was energy efficiency tips published in different parts of the world. Again, there were remarkable similarities globally – for example:

  • Buy CFL lights, and turn off lights
  • Turn down the thermostat
  • Buy energy efficient appliances
  • Seal drafts

But there were also some unique ideas out there:

  • Empty, clean and shut off your refrigerator before going on holidays (South Africa)
  • Buy a voltage optimization device (UK)
  • Get a free standby power controller to shut down power when gadgets are in standby mode (Australia)

We all want energy efficiency, but we don't all deliver

What impressed me was a uniform recognition globally that energy efficiency was necessary. We're all in this boat together.

But economic well-being and cultural differences had a way of manifesting themselves in our solutions. Regions with unsubsidized, high energy costs led in innovation and adoption, poorer regions conserved where they could and did without, and North Americans' energy usage tended to reflect a feeling of endless resources.

In short, what in the world we're doing about conservation has to do with where we are in the world.

Marc Stoiber is a creative strategist who helps clients build resilient, futureproof brands. He writes on futureproofing for Fast Company, Huffington Post, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media.