Researchers at the university of Leeds have published a study claiming that rich people use more energy than poor people; or as the BBC have it, “Climate change: The rich are to blame”. That article contains the rather obvious point that: 'The researchers found that the richer people became, the more energy they typically use. And it was replicated across all countries.'
The inevitable consequence of having money is that you spend it. And it’s hard to think of anything that you can spend money on that doesn’t involve energy. Any sort of travel, obviously, whether that’s taking a private jet to Cannes, a Ryanair flight to Prague or just driving to the coast. Any goods that you purchase required energy to make and may well require energy to run. The more often you can afford to buy new clothes, the more energy will be consumed. If you have a bigger house, the heating (or air conditioning) will use more energy. If you want a diamond ring, digging that lump of carbon out of the ground and polishing it doesn’t come cheaply. And the link between money and consumption persists whether you live in Berlin or Benin.
Statements of the obvious aside, the reported differences are stark. The wealthiest 10 per cent of people globally consume 20 times more energy overall than the bottom ten per cent, a ratio that reaches 187 when considering solely the energy used for transportation. However, such simple headline statistics disguise a more complicated picture.
One problem with simply analysing energy consumption per person is that it automatically factors out family size. Having more children will increase your total household consumption considerably, but will probably result in lowering the per capita energy consumption. Developing countries tend to have much larger average family sizes than developed nations. On the other hand, having smaller families and more disposable income makes us careless with what we use. Driving an only child half a mile to school in a Range Rover is hardly an efficient use of energy.
Access to new technology also results in new consumption. A single Google search is estimated to require 1.1 kilojoules of energy – not a huge amount (e.g., boiling a cup of water requires 82kJ), but given how many searches many of us make in a day while, for example, researching articles on energy consumption, this adds up to a meaningful total. Staggeringly, a single Bitcoin transaction could use as much as 900,000kJ. This is equivalent to boiling 11,000 cups of water.
Meanwhile, three billion people, mainly in Africa and Asia, still burn wood or coal on open fires at great cost to the environment and public heath. For these people, almost 90 per cent of their total energy usage goes just in cooking their meals and heating their home.
Another factor to be considered is that not all energy generation is equally bad for the climate. So, while the study shows that only ten per cent of Chinese people are in the top global five per cent of energy users, China is responsible for almost 30 per cent of total fossil fuel CO2 emissions. Almost unbelievably, the average UK citizen is responsible for less CO2 than the average Chinese person despite a substantially greater energy use. (Of course, this is not unrelated to our habit of off-shoring our emissions.)
This is a problem that is not going to go away. A vast number of people around the world are demanding what we take for granted. Simple technologies like refrigeration and washing machines, not having to fetch water on foot or to stop work simply because it gets dark, and reliable access to the internet and computing resources. We cannot deny them those technologies by bleating about the 'climate crisis' and nor should we. And we will not be able to make any impact on reducing global emissions by raising taxes on flights while ignoring the fact that three billion people are still burning wood in order to eat.
Until the developed world commits to help provide clean energy to the world’s poorest people, the 'climate crisis' will continue, and well-meaning, guilt-inducing reports will simply have no effect.