Maybe the hardest thing for Americans to accept about the energy challenge is that it isn’t all about us anymore.
Whether they realize it or not, both sides of the argument in the United States tend to see the root causes the same way: it’s all about the American consumer. For environmentalists, the problem is that the average American’s hunger for energy is driving the greenhouse emissions that are destroying the planet. For the “drill, baby, drill” camp, the problem is to keep gas prices low and prevent Americans from having to send their hard-earned dollars to oil producers overseas. That’s the best argument for finding as much oil as we can right here.
Last week, the International Energy Agency, the multinational organization that worries about these problems, bluntly declared that “the age of cheap oil is over.” And the remarkable thing about their analysis is how much of that conclusion is driven by factors that have nothing to do with the United States.
Consider these facts from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook report:
- The rest of the world is starting to demand a Western lifestyle, and that means we need more energy for everybody. World energy demand is projected to go up by 36 percent by 2035, and almost all of that new demand – 93 percent of it – is going to come from developing nations like China and India.
- China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer in 2009. Just ten years ago, the Chinese only consumed half as much energy as the United States. Since the average Chinese only uses one-third as much energy per person as the average Westerner, you can see there’s no place left to go but up.
- In the next 15 years, China is expected to add as much electricity generating capacity as the entire United States has now. And China will account for half of all the growth in world oil demand.
The other remarkable thing in the IEA report is that the Chinese are not just driving the problem, they’re driving the solutions. The IEA says China is investing big in renewable energy, hybrid and electric cars, and natural gas (which is significantly cleaner than coal or oil).
And what about us? We’ll still be the world’s second-largest energy consumer in twenty years, and one of the biggest producers. But unless we begin to get our act together, we’ll still be operating in old think.
The unspoken assumption around so much of our thinking on energy – that what we do here in America is driving the world – is just plain wrong. We’re convinced that our decisions about what to drive and where to drill will control how much we pay at the pump. But even if we use less energy, the rest of the world will still use more, and that means supply and demand just aren’t working in our favor.
So does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do? That we can accept gridlock in Washington and sit around while other countries – like China – do the real work to develop renewable energy and make themselves more efficient?
In fact, the opposite is true.
Unless we make some decisions here – like fixing up our electric grid—we won’t even be able to take advantage of renewable energy breakthroughs made by someone else. And unless we start diversifying our energy supply, we’re going to be at a severe disadvantage as we compete with consumers worldwide for whatever fossil fuel energy is left.
The world is changing around us—as it has a habit of doing—whether we like it or not. Our real choice is whether we’re going to get ahead of that change and make it work for us, or be left in the dust.