Why Brits use less energy than Americans

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The United States and the United Kingdom are very similar in their standards of living, but Britain uses 40 percent less energy. The World's Laura Lynch looks at why.

MARCO WERMAN: If consumption is the problem, then conservation is a solution. We Americans consume voraciously. Unfortunately for the planet, it takes a lot of energy to feed our hefty appetites. But it doesn't have to be that way. People in the United Kingdom, by and large, live about as comfortably as we do. But The World's Laura Lynch in London reports they don't burn up nearly as much energy as we do.

LAURA LYNCH: The economies of the US and the United Kingdom are almost twins. Both are highly developed, post-industrial, and heavily-reliant on service industries. But when it comes to energy, there's a stark difference. The UK uses nearly 40 percent less energy per unit of GDP than the US does. If you want to know why, you might start here, at Pickering Place, not far from Buckingham Palace. It's one of the smallest streets in London. Barely wide enough to stretch your arms. But it's not that different from many other streets in the UK. The cities are dense and compact. And the narrow roads were built long before the automobile existed so they aren't exactly car friendly. People do drive here, of course. But it can be much easier to get around on more energy-efficient public transport. Contrast that, Christopher Rootes says, with most American cities.

CHRISTOPHER ROOTES: They are geographically extensive. It's the product of urban sprawl or suburbanization.

LYNCH: Rootes is a professor of environmental politics and political sociology at the University of Kent. He says when and how US cities developed means that people there use a lot more energy just getting around.

ROOTES: The United States tends to have relatively underdeveloped mass transit systems and the result is then there's relatively heavy reliance upon private cars.

LYNCH: So, while geography may not be destiny when it comes to energy use, it does explain a lot of the difference between the US and the UK. And it's not just within cities. Britain is a relatively small island. So moving people and goods between cities can be quick and easy. In continent-wide America, it's often a much longer voyage.

ROOTES: With the result that there is relatively heavy reliance upon aviation which is relatively energy intensive.

LYNCH: Those are some of the obvious differences and things that present some of the biggest obstacles to change in the US. But there are others, things that have more to do with how people live rather than where they live. When temperatures rise here in the UK, this is the main weapon people use to beat the summer heat. Most of us switch on low-power fans instead of electricity-hungry air conditioners. This is one reason houses here generally use about a quarter less energy than in the US. Another is the size of homes. Most people here just live in smaller spaces. American anthropologist Richard Wilk noticed the difference when he came to study in London.

RICHARD WILK: People are willing to live in apartments or at least semi-detached dwellings which are more efficient. They don't demand the same kind of massive use of space and four car garages.

LYNCH: Wilk studies consumer culture and he believes the American ideal of the single family home is the single biggest factor behind the difference in energy use on a personal level. American culture, he says, emphasizes individual needs and personal fulfillment. It's different in Britain, he says.

WILK: Maybe it goes back to the Blitz spirit or this sense that the British people have of being on a small island together and of sharing each others fates.

LYNCH: That stronger sense of being in it together may underlie another key difference in energy use, higher taxes. The British have long been willing to accept higher taxes than Americans. And it's especially true for energy. Gasoline taxes, for instance, are roughly ten times higher in the UK than in the United States, a strong incentive if there ever was one to use less. So those are some of the reasons that the economy of the UK uses so much less energy. Many back in America are trying to close that gap. The Obama administration is pushing what it calls a clean energy revolution. But a bill that would reshape US energy policy is hung up in the
Senate, largely over the issue of costs. Meanwhile, the British government is moving ahead with plans to squeeze even more oil and fossil fuels out of its economy in the future.

TONY DAY: Do you want to have a look on the roof?

LYNCH: Part of that future is here at London's brand-new Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Buildings. It's run by environmental engineer Tony Day and even its rooftop is a laboratory, filled with an array of cutting edge technologies.

DAY: We have a weather station so we can measure the performance against the prevailing weather conditions. This is a roof light so photovoltaics are sandwiched there in between glass so you get daylight into the space, but it also generates electricity.

LYNCH: It's also got a sweeping view of the skyline.

DAY: So you can see around here, London is slowly changing. This building called Strata Tower has three wind turbines at the top.

LYNCH: Day says old London has a plan to make all its new buildings more energy efficient. And the country as a whole has a broader scheme to cut carbon dioxide emissions by just under a third within ten years. That means a big switch away from oil and coal to cleaner energy and even greater efficiency. It's the kind of change that the US still hasn't been able to commit to. But Tony Day says there are some practical solutions that will help wherever people live and work.

DAY: Switching off computers, switching off lights, switching off your printers when you go home.

LYNCH: Those kinds of changes won't substitute for new technologies or national energy policies. But Day says they will help people think differently about the energy they use. And that's a start. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.