The long road to the 2000-watt society

May 24, 2013 by Anna Ettlin
Credit: iStock Foto

The vision of a society in which each inhabitant of the earth manages to consume only 2000 watts (48 kilowatt-hours per day) has already been around for 15 years. During this time, there has been a steady increase in environmental awareness in the West. Technology has become more efficient and there appears to be very little standing in the way of a sustainable lifestyle. However, as a study by Empa and the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich now shows, Mr and Mrs Swiss are still a long way from achieving this.

In 1998, researchers at the ETH Zurich developed an energy policy model that could provide energy for a growing and at the same time protect the environment. Through the use of efficient technologies and processes, the industrialised countries should reduce their energy consumption to 2000 watts per inhabitant – the global average. The resources freed up could then help to combat poverty and hunger worldwide, without a reduction in living standards for the Western countries. The city of Basel has been acting as a pilot region and, in 2008, the residents of Zurich expressed themselves through the ballot box in favour of striving for a 2000-watt society. At the same time as reducing , the aim is also to reduce emissions of to the equivalent of one ton of CO2 per person per year.

Current per capita energy consumption in Switzerland meanwhile still exceeds the target for sustainability significantly, as the annual energy statistics from the Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU) show. However, such statistics use a "top-down" approach: they divide total consumption by the number of inhabitants. Dominic Notter and Hans-Jörg Althaus from Empa and Reto Meyer from the ETH Zurich therefore carried out a study which considers the of Switzerland "bottom-up", i.e. based on the individual. The researchers were hoping to find households that already meet the criteria of the 2000-watt and/or 1-ton CO2 society. These examples could then be used to derive pioneering strategies for sustainability. The results of the study were published in the peer review scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Through a combination of survey and lifestyle analysis, the researchers gained a uniquely detailed view into the different lifestyles of the Swiss population. 3369 households answered questions on living, transport, food and consumer goods. With the help of the "ecoinvent" database, which is administered by Empa, the researchers calculated the individual energy consumption, along with the resulting greenhouse gas emissions and the overall impact of each household on the environment.

Not a single household surveyed met the conditions of the 2000-watt society completely: even energy-efficient people produced too much CO2 emissions. The lowest individual value and the average of the most sustainable 10% of those surveyed are labelled.

Western lifestyle and the 2000-watt society – a contradiction?

The results were sobering: of 3369 households surveyed, not a single one met the conditions of the 2000-watt society. The economic theory that environmental impact increases with rising incomes and then decreases again was also not confirmed. Although it is true that energy consumption, emissions and environmental pollution do increase linearly with income, no reduction takes place (at even higher incomes).

Energy consumption among the households surveyed ranged from an "exemplary" 1400 watts per person to 20,000 watts – ten times the target value – with the average being 4200 watts. Overall, only two percent of those surveyed were below the 2000-watt threshold – and even they emitted far more than one ton of CO2. However, what is significant is that these low-energy households are found in every income bracket. If households with an above-average income only consume 2 kW of energy, the goal of a 2000-watt society is achievable: low is possible with a high standard of living.

Around a quarter of the energy is consumed as electricity – therefore a massive reduction in overall consumption cannot be achieved simply by using more energy-efficient appliances. This is because a large part of the energy goes into heating and transport. The low-energy households scored particularly well in precisely these categories. Thus, the heated area per person was small and the heating requirement was relatively low. In terms of transport, such households were likewise very restrained: they limited themselves in terms of the amount of car driving and flying they did.

It is thus in the area of living and transport behaviour that researchers see the most potential for improvement. Even in low-energy households, the heated area per person is too large. Transport, particularly by car and plane, accounts for almost half the greenhouse gas emissions and causes serious environmental pollution: the sources of energy used in this area are primarily fossil fuels.

Although the average environmental impact of those surveyed is relatively low, it exceeds the guideline of the 2000-watt society by several times. The highest recorded energy consumption is even ten times higher than the recommended level.

Doing without is unavoidable

Researchers believe that the transformation of our society into a sustainable 2000-watt society is possible – but only with "the greatest possible effort". However, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is far more difficult. For this, Switzerland would have to obtain 80 percent of its total energy from low-carbon sources. With the closure of the nuclear power stations, this means renewable energies – and not just for electricity, but also for heating and transport. This would require major technical advances – and a change in lifestyle, according to the study.

The ambitious sustainability target is only achievable if individuals and the state strive towards a sustainability strategy together. This calls for action such as intelligent town planning that reduces the need for travel and political measures that promote environmentally friendly behaviour. A sustainable lifestyle is characterised by frugality, so although we can maintain our quality of life, it is necessary to forego extravagance. By living in a smaller heated area, limiting the use of transport and avoiding excessive consumption of goods and services, according to Notter, everyone could do their bit for sustainability.

Explore further: Indonesia passes law to tap volcano power

More information: Notter, D. et al. The Western Lifestyle and Its Long Way to Sustainability, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4014–4021. DOI: 10.1021/es3037548

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User comments : 15

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2.6 / 5 (10) May 24, 2013
Silly doods, my PC has a 1600 watt power supply. I have three 300 watt halogen floor lamps, several dozen 100-150 watt incandescent lights, a 5 ton HVAC and a 100 gallon hot water heater, a 1000 watt microwave, a 5000 watt range, a 170 amp@220V arc welder (VA=W)

You think I'm giving ANY of that up, you can kiss my algore.
4 / 5 (4) May 24, 2013
This article was written by a physics illiterate and should be ignored!

A watt is not a unit of energy! It is a unit of power.

2.6 / 5 (5) May 25, 2013
How did this get published?

Perhaps the writer means 2 kWh?

If so, that would be hard to do and unnecessary. Just switch to renewables and people can have plenty. We're so solar and wind rich there's no need to move to extreme efficiency.

Want to drive 13,000 miles a year? Put 2.5 kW of solar panels on your roof. $2/watt installed in Germany today. $5k buys you 13,000 miles for the next 40+ years. Another $10k will pay for enough panels to give you 20 kWh per day for your house.

(Yeah, the Sun doesn't shine all the time. There are multiple other renewable inputs including wind which is even cheaper and we've got good storage options coming on line. It's just an engineering problem now.)

3.4 / 5 (8) May 25, 2013

If so, that would be hard to do and unnecessary. Just switch to renewables and people can have plenty. We're so solar and wind rich there's no need to move to extreme efficiency.

Yes, ultimately non-fossil sources (renewables, nuclear) are plentiful and there is little need to be efficient with their use. But energy efficiency can help with transition away from fossils in the meantime until alternatives mature. And we are still long way off from that.
4.5 / 5 (4) May 25, 2013

If so, that would be hard to do and unnecessary. Just switch to renewables and people can have plenty. We're so solar and wind rich there's no need to move to extreme efficiency.

Yes, ultimately non-fossil sources (renewables, nuclear) are plentiful and there is little need to be efficient with their use. But energy efficiency can help with transition away from fossils in the meantime until alternatives mature. And we are still long way off from that.

We're actually making progress with efficiency. The great thing about efficiency is that people can buy a new TV, refer, or whatever and be pleased with the performance while never realizing that they are saving electricity.

Business are taking efficiency and conservation seriously. Money not sent to the power company flows right to their bottom line.
1.7 / 5 (6) May 25, 2013
Most of energy savings are based on increased raw materials consumption, which demands life environment even more. People should urge their local politicians for governmental investments into cold fusion research, the way of draconian savings is not feasible solution for life, only for surviving.
3.8 / 5 (5) May 25, 2013
We are researching cold fusion.

We really need to solve our problems with the things we have and which work. If something better comes along later we can switch over.

We don't need draconian savings, we need to be as efficient as reasonable without significantly lowering the quality of our lives. It's generally easier and cheaper to cut usage than to create new supply.

If we depend on great and uncomfortable energy savings we will fail. Most people will not participate, just as so many continue overeat and fail to save for retirement.

It is not true that most energy savings are based on increased raw material consumption. Sometimes savings are built on less consumption. Making cars lighter uses less materials and increases gas mileage.

Designing a house so that it gets more solar gain in the winter and less in the summer doesn't require more material. LEDs use much less material than incandescents, LEDs last 40x as long which means less materials.
1.8 / 5 (5) May 25, 2013
We are researching cold fusion.
Yes, but very slowly and we are starting to pay for it with destruction of life environment and increased risk of global nuclear conflict. The first cold fusion experiments were made in 1926 already and they were never replicated. With such approach we would never construct the nuclear bomb for example (which has been completed just after some six years after finding of fusion).
LEDs use much less material than incandescents
Yes, but these materials are much more expensive and close to depletion - as the recent China embargo of rare earth elements expert reminded. Also, their manufacture is more energetically and environmentally demanding. You know, if some LED costs 20x more than the tungsten bulb, it just indicates, its production requires the 20-times more energy. Such an energy is essentially wasted, when we use the electricity for heating of homes anyway - we could use the cheap incandescent bulbs under such a situation as well.
4 / 5 (5) May 25, 2013
There are research projects which are never replicated. That generally means that the first set of results did not hold up in previous research.

There's no shortage of rare earth minerals. Their name is misleading.

LEDs do cost more, but they are much cheaper over their lifetimes. Less materials are used and less energy used. Light bulbs are very inefficient heat sources. That's a worn out 'friends of fossil fuel' argument. And the cost of LED bulbs is coming down quite fast. If the present cost is a problem for you, then use CFLs for now. Just don't break them and lick up the tiny bit of mercury inside.

Here's an example of how efficiency works - Alcoa Aluminum just opened a plant to recycle aluminum for forged wheels. The new plant uses half the energy that the old process used. And by locating the plant adjacent to where the waste accumulates they saved 95% of the energy needed for transportation.

Efficiency. Find some today.
3 / 5 (6) May 25, 2013
The author suggests we will have to "do without". Can we start by doing without "Waste All Resources" (a.k.a. war) ?
1 / 5 (3) May 26, 2013
My average rate of energy consumption over each day is 320 watts.

3.3 / 5 (12) May 26, 2013
My average rate of energy consumption over each day is 320 watts.

Judging by your posts on climate and the like, I'd guess your consumption of Watts is already too much.
1 / 5 (1) May 26, 2013
A watt is not a unit of energy! It is a unit of power.
48K watts / per 24hrs.

not rated yet May 26, 2013
A watt is not a unit of energy! It is a unit of power.
48K watts / per 24hrs.

I guness that isn't all that bad when you total your "energy" consumption over the period of a say. Everything from the hotwater heater for the warm shower in to morning to the coffee pot for that hot cup of joe. Then add in the trip to work and the gas for that. Then at work you have all of the support gear going, the computer on you desk and the lamps over your head. Even thing we don't think about will add in to the equation; like the energy to make the fertilizer for the grass in yard after yard as you drive past house after house.

Total that up and your bound to exceed the 48Kwatt Hrs/per day (2000 watts). I agree though, it's confusing the way the article describes this. At my house, we average about 30Kwatt hrs/ day for a modest sized place. I guess we are just hitting the 2000 watt mark when you add in the car and support business.
2 / 5 (8) May 26, 2013
Vicar Gore reads this and laughs as he enjoys the luxuries of his mansion, burning 20 times the average US household.