Gadget and Appliance Energy Use up 600% in 40 Years

It is not news that our energy consumption has greatly increased in the last 40 years. Nor is it news that our rate of consumption of appliances and gadgets is outpacing the gains we are making in energy efficiency. However, a new report by The Energy Saving Trust puts the scale of growth in bold relief. According to the UK-based study, consumer electronics energy consumption in the UK has increased 600% in 40 years. Is it possible for the UK to meet its carbon emissions reduction goals by 2020 when gadget use is on the rise?

Electronics Consumption Outpacing Energy Efficiency Improvements
The study, titled The elephant in the living room: How our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream, is an update to a report released five years ago examining the rate of consumer appliance and electronics consumption when compared to energy efficiency gains.

Now, five years later, the Energy Saving Trust finds that large plasma TVs, fridge-freezers with ice-makers, and tumble-dryers are three of the worst offenders in the problem of meeting carbon emissions reduction targets. And what is worse is that while manufacturers are working to make these now-common appliances more energy efficient, their presence in homes means that the UK is consuming even more energy than five years ago. Here are some facts listed in the updated report:

  • In the UK, 29% of our CO2 emissions come from the home.
  • An estimated 6.4 million households are currently in fuel poverty, around a million more than two years ago.
  • Traditional domestic appliances (our washing machines, cookers, fridges) are expected to consume about 9.2% less energy by 2020.
  • By 2020 it is predicted that 30% of Britain’s ovens will be gas, and 70% electric.
  • Between 1970 and 2009, electricity consumption by consumer electronic goods rose by well over 600%, from 3.2TWh to 20.8 TWh.
  • In 1985, only 13% of the population owned a computer; in 2009, over three quarters owned at least one.

These are not small numbers. And seeing how things have changed so rapidly is a wake-up call.

Real Energy Efficiency Improvements Come With Behavior Change
This report, like many that point out they ways we're consuming more while chirping about reductions and efficiency, underscores one key point that every issue in the environmental movement eventually circles back to: We need to change our habits of consumption. Meeting carbon emissions reduction goals really is not about making technology ever more energy efficient, though that of course should remain a high-priority goal. Meeting the goals is really about examining the way in which we consume technology and making appropriate changes to our behavior, including our use of electronics that do increasingly more high-powered stuff, replacing gadgets without a genuine need for replacement, expecting immediate convenience, no matter the watts it takes to provide it. It's about us, and what we've grown to require of the world.

The report states, "[P]olicy interventions and product technology improvements cannot be expected on their own to provide the fast, deep emissions reduction we need to achieve, within the time we need to achieve it. For good reason, policies and legislative frameworks take time to implement, and to bear fruit. As well as working along the whole domestic electrical supply chain, there needs to be a concerted campaign to change the way we all behave at home, to reduce domestic energy demand dramatically -- within this decade."

Forty years is a long, long, long time in technology terms. Most of us can barely remember what it was like to have to access encyclopedias, or search a card catalog drawer to find a library book, or spin that funny little dial thing on a telephone to place a call (and the phone had to be plugged into a wall). Ancient stuff. Now, we have personal computers, televisions in several rooms of the house, cell phones that often need to be recharged every day or two, refrigerators that can practically talk to us, washers and dryers that can be programed for special modes depending on the items you're putting in.

So a 600% increase in electricity consumption in 40 years is not necessarily surprising, though in a way, it should be.

Things are different now, and that difference requires more energy even if the newer model of gadget uses energy more efficiently than the previous model. And not only is technology different, but our mindsets about it are different. And that is the heart of the problem.

Can We Have Our iPhones And Carbon Emissions Reductions Too?
Technology is easy to change and improve. The rapid rate at which is has changed and improved is proof of that. However, changing and improving our expectations and demands on the role technology plays in our daily lives is considerably harder. It requires behavioral shifts that can be tough to make.

Can we have all the technology we can handle and still have a carbon footprint that is sustainable? Perhaps. But it all comes back to improvements and consumption keeping pace with one another. Right now consumption is in the lead. While technology has and continues to bring about wonderful benefits to our lives, the extent to which we use it must align with what is ecologically sustainable. After all, there is no technology that can exist that will save us from unsustainable consumption.

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