Increased wealth and per capita energy use have transformed lives and shaped societies, but energy poverty remains a global challenge. Previous research has shown positive relationships among metrics of health and happiness and economic indices such as income and gross domestic product and between energy use and human development. To our knowledge, however, no comprehensive assessment has examined to what extent energy use may limit national-level trends in such metrics. We analyze the maximum global performance of nine health, economic, and environmental metrics by country, determining which metrics increase with per capita energy use and which show thresholds or plateaus in maximum performance. Across the dataset, eight of nine metrics, including life expectancy, infant mortality, happiness, food supply, and access to basic sanitation services, improve steeply and then plateau at levels of average primary annual energy consumption between 10 and 75 GJ person−1 computed nationally (five metrics plateau between 10 and 30 GJ person−1). One notable exception is air quality (energy threshold of 125 GJ person−1 across 133 countries). Averaged across metrics, the 10 countries (with at least seven metrics) showing the best performance given their per capita primary energy use are Malta, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Albania, Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, Norway, Morocco, and Denmark. If distributed equitably, today's average global energy consumption of 79 GJ person−1 could, in principle, allow everyone on Earth to realize 95% or more of maximum performance across all metrics (and assuming no other limiting factors). Dozens of countries have average per capita energy use below this 79 GJ energy sufficiency threshold, highlighting the need to combat energy poverty. Surprisingly, our analysis also suggests that reduced per capita primary energy consumption could in principle occur in many higher energy-consuming countries with little or no loss in health, happiness, or other outcomes, reducing the need for global energy infrastructure and increasing global equity.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- U.N. sustainable development goals
- energy poverty
- human health and well-being
- per capita energy use