This Earth Day, Let's Act on Energy Efficiency
Images of pristine Venetian canals, smog-less Indian cities, and a traffic-free Los Angeles – all a result of the global economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus – are the viral sensation du jour. It’s certainly an interesting backdrop to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.
It is tempting to label this reduction in carbon emissions and pollution a silver lining of the pandemic. However, aside from the fact that these effects are temporary – emissions will likely increase after social distancing measures are lifted – these images may be perpetuating a false dichotomy: that a thriving economy and healthy environment cannot coexist.
Given the inadequate rate of progress in climate change mitigation to date, it can be easy to sympathize with the argument that the economy and the environment are fundamentally at odds.
But energy efficiency has demonstrated that a strong economy and a healthy environment don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
Energy efficiency reduces the amount of energy required to produce a good or service. It is achieved through a variety of measures on multiple scales – from using more efficient lighting and appliances (e.g., LED bulbs, which use up to 80% less energy than an incandescent equivalent) to integrating our buildings and even communities to coordinate energy use. The culmination of these technologies and practices helps us use our energy in the most productive way possible, vastly reducing our carbon emissions without necessitating economic sacrifice.
The 20 million Americans who took to the streets to celebrate the first Earth Day in 1970 were probably not thinking about energy efficiency: It would be seven more years before the Department of Energy would be created, and 22 more years until ENERGY STAR, a voluntary efficiency labeling program, would be created by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But on the eve of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, we have swaths of data that prove energy efficiency’s potency as a tool for mitigating climate change without compromising our standard of living. In fact, energy efficiency brings enormous quality of life benefits – improving economic productivity, reducing energy costs, improving resilience, and creating jobs. Without the efficiency improvements made since 1980 – 10 years after the first Earth Day – the U.S. would require nearly 70% more energy to deliver our current GDP. Put another way: Efficiency has allowed U.S. economic output to expand more than 300% since 1970, while energy demand has only grown 50%.
There are many policies and programs that helped us achieve this feat, including fuel economy standards, building energy codes, appliance and equipment standards, and utility demand-side management programs.
But we could do so much more: the IEA estimates that 40% of the emissions cuts needed to achieve the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement must come from energy efficiency – and that this is possible by investing in currently available technologies. Unfortunately, efficiency investment has slowed for the third year in a row.
In line with the “climate action” theme of Earth Day 2020, one of the most impactful ways we can celebrate this year is by demanding more energy efficiency action and investment.
We have big plans for the big 5-0. In the U.S., we’re asking Congress to respond to the dramatic downturn in the energy efficiency economy by boosting federal funding and tax incentives for energy efficiency in coronavirus stimulus packages. We’re leading an initiative that seeks to modernize energy efficiency to better align with a changing energy landscape and to achieve deeper emissions cuts. We’re doubling down on international outreach efforts through the EE Global Alliance, a coalition of global leaders committed to promoting faster, deeper efficiency investments. And we’re speaking out against the Trump administration’s decision to roll back the Clean Car standards.
We’re doing this because we want to live in a world with both a strong economy and a healthy environment.
We hope you’ll join us in this Earth Day celebration.