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Why energy?

Few of us – especially those of us living in advanced economies – ever pause to reflect on the pervasive importance of energy to our lives.

That’s only natural given the convenience and reliability of the energy we use. Consider electricity, for example. It flows when we flip a switch and suddenly there’s light. We turn on a cell phone and instantly connect with others around the world. It happens so automatically, that only disruptions get our attention.

At the same time, few of us ever get a glimpse of the energy being used miles away to produce this electricity for our benefit. Similarly, we expect our local service station will have fuel when we drive our car or truck in for a fill-up. Do we ever consider the energy it took to get the gasoline to the station, let alone the energy used to build our car?

Energy is a critical part of boosting prosperity and eradicating poverty.

Jim Yong Kim, President, World Bank Group

Energy is everywhere and it transforms everything

Think about it. Energy is all around us. Vital in virtually every aspect of our lives, it’s remarkable that the value of energy doesn’t get broader recognition.

How are modern energy supplies paired with today’s technologies to improve your own life? You’re warmed in the winter and cooled in the summer, thanks to energy. Electricity powers your alarm clock, your television, and your cell phone. A refrigerator uses energy to keep your food safe to consume and your oven uses energy to cook it. And before that, your food was grown by farmers, then processed, packaged and transported to the grocery store from another part of the country or the world, using energy at every step along the way. Essentially every task you perform and every product you use throughout the day is made possible because of energy.

It raises the question: why energy? The answer is simple. Energy helps us survive and frees us to pursue fuller lives in thousands of ways.

Today, most people are fortunate to have energy supplies and clean water flowing directly to their homes. Modern appliances can handle tasks like cooking and laundry while we read an e-book, watch television, shop online, hit the treadmill, or challenge the kids to a video game, all in a temperature-controlled room.

We have unparalleled travel options. We can use a motorcycle, car, bus, truck, train, boat or plane.

We can dash to school, to work or to the grocery store in minutes. We can drive hundreds of miles to see family or fly across an ocean in hours. And we can trade goods with others thousands of miles away. Energy not only powers all of this travel, it helps us build the vehicles and infrastructure that it requires.

When our loved ones are sick, energy is integral to getting them to the doctor and restoring their health. From hospitals and urgent-care facilities, to basic pharmaceutical drugs, to materials that keep equipment sterile, to high-tech diagnostic tools such as MRIs, energy has a hand in producing and powering our health system.

Our lives are also affected by electric-powered devices that are transforming communications and computing. Today, we can be in touch with someone else basically anytime, anywhere in a matter of seconds. And with the Internet, we can transform the education of our children, telecommute to work, capture new trade opportunities, see distant friends and family, or attend online classes to improve our education.

These technologies are widely used today only because they provide practical value to people like you; value that would not exist without convenient access to modern and reliable energy supplies. This combination of technology and energy provides important synergies that improve human life. We can meet basic needs much more efficiently and in turn pursue more valuable activities, whether it’s time with family and friends, furthering our education, inventing a new medical treatment, building a business, playing or simply helping a neighbor.

Energy and human progress

The last two centuries have seen remarkable changes across our world. The global population has increased from 1 billion to 7 billion people. At the same time, living standards have advanced dramatically in many parts of the world, supported by modern technologies and access to energy. People with the freedom to innovate and thrive in an environment of investment risk-and-reward led a burst of human progress, the pace and scale of which has been remarkable. As an indicator, energy consumption worldwide is now about 25 times higher than in 1800.

Expanding use of advanced technologies has also correlated with increasing demand for coal, oil, natural gas and electricity. As technologies and needs have evolved, people have naturally sought practical solutions with energy that are reliable, affordable and convenient. An often unrecognized sign of technology’s progress over time is dramatic energy efficiency gains. For example, a steam engine in 1800 at 6 percent efficiency pales in comparison to a modern combined-cycle gas turbine with about 60 percent efficiency. It’s no coincidence that people’s quest to improve the use of their resources also extends to energy.

Together, technology and energy advances have helped bring about an unprecedented improvement in the key indicators of human well-being, including incomes, literacy rates and average life expectancy in many parts of the world.

Still, this dramatic progress has not been seen everywhere. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity, while 2.6 billion people rely on traditional biomass energy for cooking. 

The global energy landscape is changing rapidly. And those changes will recast our expectations about the role of different countries, regions and fuels over the coming decades.

Maria van der Hoeven, Executive Director, IEA

As the world’s population approaches 9 billion people in 2040, we are challenged to not just meet basic needs, but also to improve living standards throughout the world.

In our view, meeting this challenge will require an increase in energy use worldwide of about 35 percent. The scale of the challenge may seem daunting, but history demonstrates a remarkable ability of people to overcome hurdles to progress. Fortunately, the world not only holds a vast and diverse array of energy resources, but we also possess increasingly advanced technologies that can safely and reliably supply this energy.

Another important aspect to improving standards of living concerns the environment. Perhaps most urgent are needs in many areas of the world for cleaner air and cleaner water. Nations around the world also need to continue to address risks associated with rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We expect advanced technologies and lower carbon fuels will help energy-related CO2 emissions plateau around 2030.

In pondering our Outlook to 2040, we recognize that people’s lives and those of their children are being transformed by access to energy and technology. Going forward, we expect people everywhere will continue to invent, innovate, work and deliver practical solutions to build a brighter future. Now, as always, that path to progress will be powered by human ingenuity and energy.