Four Things Nations Can Do to Conserve Energy
European Union officials have called on countries in the bloc to sharply reduce their natural gas consumption. These are some of the strategies they could use.
By Elena Shao
July 23, 2022, 8:00 a.m. ET
This week, temperatures in Britain reached a record 40.3 degrees Celsius, or 104.5 Fahrenheit, capping a brutal heat wave that scorched Europe and sent electricity demand soaring.
It came amid a war in Ukraine that has upended the global energy market.
The energy crunch prompted the European Union executive this week to ask member states to reduce their gas consumption by 15 percent from now through next spring as officials prepare for Russia to cut deliveries of natural gas in the coming months.
Here are of some of the things countries could do to curb energy demand, and some of the potential pitfalls:
Adjust thermostats, starting in government buildings
Setting an air-conditioner just one degree Celsius, or about two degrees Fahrenheit, warmer could reduce the amount of electricity used by 10 percent a year, according to the International Energy Agency.
Nick Eyre, a professor of energy and climate policy at the University of Oxford, said that governments could set an example. The general public, he noted, might not respond well to politicians telling them how to live without making changes themselves.
Adjusting the thermostat lower in the winter by just one degree Celsius for buildings in Europe could save as much as 10 billion cubic meters of gas, equivalent to the annual gas demand of Austria.
Extreme Heat Around the World This Week
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A summer of hot misery. It was a brutal week in several parts of the world that aren’t built for extreme heat, as Europe was ravaged by temperature spikes and wildfires. Some U.S. states broke heat records set during the Dust Bowl. Here’s a look at what happened:
United Kingdom. Britain endured its hottest day in history. Temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius — 104 degrees Fahrenheit — were recorded in parts of the country on Tuesday for the first time ever.
France. Europe’s heat wave left a trail of raging wildfires, lost lives and evacuated homes across the continent, but the greatest damage was in France. Blazes in the country’s southwest forced more than 37,000 people to evacuate.
United States. About 100 million Americans from California to New England were under heat advisories and warnings on Wednesday. Parts of the country experienced temperatures not seen since the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s.
Central U.S. Oklahoma City broke a daily heat record on Tuesday with a temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit — tied for the state’s highest-ever July temperature. Austin, Texas, topped 100 degrees for over 40 straight days, with more in the forecast.
U.S. East and West Coasts While these regions were mostly spared, the Northeast got an unwelcome taste this week, as heat indexes topped 100 degrees in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. The scorcher will last into next week, when the Pacific Northwest will also heat up.
Lower the cost of public transportation
Worldwide, incentivizing public transportation by making it cheaper and encouraging other mobility options, like walking or cycling, could save around 330,000 barrels a day of oil use, according to the I.E.A.
That number could grow if employers simultaneously provide flexibility in working hours or allow more work-from-home days.
Some countries in Europe are already doing this. Beginning in June and running through at least August, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway company, offers unlimited public transport passes for the equivalent of about $9 a month, as part of plans to mitigate the effects of inflation. Ireland and Italy also cut public transport fares for certain groups, like young adults, students and workers.
One limitation: It would not be particularly effective in rural areas that don’t have robust public transportation.
Reduce speed limits, and make them stick
In theory, lowering the speed limit on highways could significantly reduce fuel consumption for cars and trucks, according to a report from the International Energy Agency. A number of countries and urban areas already have speed limits in place to reduce congestion and pollution.
If speeds limits on highways were reduced by at least 10 kilometers per hour, or roughly 6 miles per hour, advanced economies could cut oil demand by at least 290,000 barrels of oil a day, the report said.
As a practical matter, though, it can be difficult to implement a national speed limit and to get enough citizens on board to achieve significant results. The United States tried to do it in 1974, introducing a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour for automobiles, buses and trucks after OPEC cut oil supplies to the country, estimating that the limit could save 200,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Several European countries also reduced speed limits.
At the time, officials believed the limit would reduce gasoline consumption by 2.2 percent, but actual gasoline demand remained relatively flat in the years following. Motorists widely disregarded the law, and some states that opposed the rule handed out only modest fines of $5 to $15 for people caught speeding.
Get public outreach campaigns right
Well-designed public awareness campaigns can motivate people to take measures to reduce their own energy use, but poorly designed campaigns that don’t find the right tone and message can fall flat.
Some energy conservation campaigns are more successful when they emphasize how people can save money with their actions; others do better when they take an environmental approach or make moral appeals about good citizenship. In many cases, governments could take advantage of social media to tailor different messages to different audiences.
It’s important to not only think about the message and how it is conveyed, but also about the messenger. If citizens don’t perceive the government as a credible authority, they’re less likely to believe the message, an I.E.A. report said.
The best campaigns strike a balance between urgency and agency.
“You can’t just put information out there and expect people to change their behavior overnight,” said Brian Motherway, the head of the energy efficiency division at the International Energy Agency. If you employ behavioral scientists and communications experts and take the time to design an intentional campaign, he said, “you can really get it right.”
“You can find ways to engage with citizens in a way that really empowers them and motivates them to act.”