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Documentation > Greenhouse effect > Is there an ideal world ? > What would an "energetically vertuous" world look like?
Documentation > Miscellaneous Energy > Energy > What would an "energetically vertuous" world look like?

What would an "energetically vertuous" world look like ?

First version (in french) : april 2000 - Last modified : 1st september 2003

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It is a fact that the present world energy consumption - and even more the future world energy consumption if we prolongate the trends - is excessive if we intend that our world be "sustainable". This statement is based on three well known facts :

the energy resources that we use today are essentially (over 80%) fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). To use them we draw on a stock, and the stock, though unknown with great precision, is limited. The time horizon is still an object of debate, but we will have to do without one day for sure.

these fossil fuels contribute to increase the greenhouse effect (I advise reading the related section before what follows), which will have irreversible consequences for thousands years. There is quite a difference between our present emissions and what we could emit to stop the CO2 from increasing in the atmosphere !

The way of life in the industrializing countries and that of present industrialized countries is bound to merge, as a consequence of the fast circulation of information (I belong to those who think that the information society does not substitute, be reinforces, the consumption society), it is not possible that the convergence level be around what we occidentals presently consume : applying to 9 billion human beings my present level of consumption - or yours - does not allow to "fit in the box".

An "energetically vertuous" world would be a world compatible with the idea of "sustainable development" (though some people will reply, wittingly enough, that any developement is by essence not sustainable, and that we'd better speak of "socially acceptable underdeveloppement" !). We should then avoid :

to create or increase a dependancy on fuels that are drawn on a stock, such a system, as the stock is necessarily limited, being only able to lead to a shortage,

to leave the future generations (starting with our own kids and grand kids) more waste (of all kinds, CO2 being included) to manage than they are able to do without consequent damages or sharp decrease of their quality of life compared to ours.


Starting from there, what would, in practical terms, such a world look like ?

As a modest attempt to clarify the debate, I have tried to list below some implications that such a wish would probably have for our everyday life, for "the economy" and for the average citizen. What follows is not designed to be a "vade-mecum" for any would-be ecologist dictator, but just what should constitute a couple of logical consequences of such a choice of "energetic virtue". Such a choice is of course not mandatory (otherwise it is not a choice any more) !



What energies are we allowed to use in an "energetically virtuous" world ?

We are probably not entitled the present energy consumption

It is never possible to "produce" energy without producing at the same time some waste or unwanted side effects : there is hence no such thing as "clean" energy. I have tried (below) to establish a hierarchy of the various wastes produced by the various energies. I do not refer to the way people consider those inconvenients but to facts.



Type of waste

Consequence induced

Magnitude of consequence

Irreversibility of the consequence (1)

Is there a technical solution to the problem ?

Is there a side effect to the solution ?
coal CO2 climate change

very high



local pollution (SO2), black carbon particles acid rain, sanitary effects



yes (filters)

yes : increased energy consumption
ashes Pollution by runoff, ground water contamination

medium to high

medium to high


yes : increased energy consumption
oil CO2 climate change

very high



local pollution (nitrous oxydes, ozone, particles, etc) Sanitary impacts (increased mortality and morbidity)



yes (various devices)

yes : increased energy consumption
natural gas CO2, methane leaks climate change

very high



nuclear nuclear waste space occupation (for storage)

low (2)

very high

yes : produce less waste

probably not !
hydro flooding of land, population move, inducing effects on the environment in new lifeplaces of moved population land use change

low to high (low for micro-turbines, high for large dams)



biomass land occupation land unavailable for other uses




solar toxic products used for manufacturing of panels halocarbons, miscellaneous toxic products

medium to high with technologies used in 2000



probably not
out of use solar panels land occupation (special dumpyard)



yes (improvement of recycling)

negative visual effect visual discomfort




probably not
wind power negative visual effect visual discomfort

medium (3)



probably not
noise auditive discomfort




probably not
land use land partially unavailable for other uses

medium (3)




For each source of energy the colour used goes with the magnitude of the consequences (for example a climate change is a consequence of great magnitude, but planting half france with wood used to heat homes would also be !) and the reversion possibilities : for climate change, for example, the process is irreversible at the time horizon of a lifetime.

(1) compared to the length of a human life

(2) see later on after this table

(3) a single windmill induces only a low visual nuisance. This statement is made with the hypothesis that wind generation develops a little.


Some might find curious, probably, that I don't label the inconvenients of nuclear energy as tremendously dangerous and nasty. But an objective analysis of the facts show that nuclear energy is now one of the cleanest ways that we have to produce massive quantities of electricity :

french nuclear power plants produce 80% of our electricity and generates 110 m3 of high activity waste per year (that is a "shoe box" 10 meters large, 10 m long, and 1 m high, or the volume of 5 cars). If we compare :

the whole french industry produces roughly 10 millions m3 of toxic waste per year, which represents 10.000 times more (each French is indirectly responsible of 3 tonnes of industrial waste per year, more or less, and the same rough figure applies probably to any industrialized country),

the same electricity produced with coal - not even mentionning greenhouse gases emissions - would generate 20 to 30 millions m3 of ash, or 20.000 times more, ashes that are also toxic (they contain lots of dangerous substances : heavy metals, radionucleides, etc) and that lead to underground water pollution after the runoff resulting from rain.

nuclear electricity production has probably killed a couple hundred people since its origin, Chernobyl included (United Nations say 35 ; Nations Unies/APELL). Let's compare :

Coal mines probably kill several thousands people per year in China, and several hundreds in Ukraine (I do not have precise figures, but coal specialists have confirmed the number of zeros).

Driving kills around 100.000 people per year in OECD countries (that is around 300 per day), excluding pollution, that is suspected to kill twice that amount (Turi Report to the European Council),

30.000 Americans die each year because of firearms,

coal fired power plants would kill the same number of people in the same country (because of pollution, particularly that of small particles),

more than a million people die each year in "developped" countries because of alcohol and tobacco (not mentionning obesity as a serious challenger now), etc

the established nuisances of electronuclear plants are therefore not significant in the ensemble of nuisances that we inflict ourselves, and the focus of certain media on this way to produce electricity is not representative of its real inconvenients. Is the civilian use of nuclear energy paying the price of its mixture with the military uses of the same energy, which is definitely something much more debatable ?

On the grounds of the established figures the inconvenients of nuclear energy are not at all a major nuisance, and I can only note that there is an important shift between the perceived risks and the real risks for this technolgy.

This being said, spreading to the whole planet the level of energy consumption we have now in industrialized countries would result in a multiplication by 4 of the world consumption, which, even with the "cleanest" energy sources available, would probably result in serious problems, as we will see.


In an "energetically virtuous" world, we are not allowed fossil fuels any more

These fuels generate 65% of the additionnal - human induced - greenhouse effect, leading to irreversible effects that will last centuries, including potentially disastrous consequences,

They are limited : in a world that remains heavily dependent on these fuels, nobody can exclude that accessing to the ultimate resources might be a reason for armed conflicts, including between "rich" countries (what will happen the day the US will not invite other countries to invade the Gulf in common, but warn everybody not to come in because there will not be enough oil to share between all the "winners" ?), or master-slave relations (including between "rich" countries as well).

It must be known that prolongating the trends (on a world basis) regarding fossil fuels (keeping an annual growth of consumption of a couple %) leads us to total exhaustion of known reserves (including coal) in less than 50 years, which means that heavy tensions will appear much before,

This reasoning is valid no matter what fossil fuel is concerned, and therefore also applies to natural gas.


We can use solar energy

using massively solar energy will probably be of little effect on the climate system : the amount of solar energy that earth receives every day represents 20 times the annual world consumption (if we went 100% solar we would therefore use 0,01% or the incoming solar flux). In addition, allmost all solar energy that reaches the ground is naturally transformed into heat, and using it to heat homes would not perturbate much the natural cycle, nor would converting sun rays into electricity - that eventually also turns into heat - perturbate significantly the natural cycles (and much less that greenhouse gases emissions, anyway : there are two to three orders of magnitude of difference),

The source is indefinitely renewable or almost (it will last longuer than humankind : still a couple billion years to go for the sun ; I would not bet my personal savings that our species will last that long !).

Except for the manufacturing and disposal of panels (for thermal solar or photovoltaïc solar), which can nevertheless be a nuisance for photovoltaïc solar, the exploitation of sun rays doesn't generate any nuisance (no significant gaseous, liquid or solid residues, and no noise),

The surface required in order to get a significant contribution to our energy consumption is compatible with the present land use, even if we substitute part of the fossil fuels by electricity (electric vehicles for example), what would increase the global electricity consumption "everything else staying the same". Nevertheless technological progresses - in sight - are still necessary before net productions (that is all the energy produced by the solar panel over its lifetime minus the energy required to manufacture the panel and, should the case arise, the storage system) become good.

This way of producing energy would allow developping countries, that are generally better exposed than industrialized countries, to get a significant amount of energy per inhabitant with little associated CO2 emissions (see an interesting article developping that point of view).


We can draw a little on hydroelectricity

The resource is indefinitely renewable, since it is a derivate of solar energy,

normal operations don't generate any significant residue (liquid, solid or gaseous),

a little decentralized production is possible (but with a limited potential),

But dams are heavy constructions, that perturbate the environment when built : flooding of valleys, population displacement, impact on fish resources, etc, and that can cause important accidents (a couple of dam ruptures have caused more than 2.000 deaths),

there is not an infinite number of places where a dam can be built.

If these dams are used for irrigation, it can lead to major local ecological impacts (the sea of Aral is a good example ; its size has been divided by two following a massive use of the upstream water for irrigation) but we then face a consequence of water resource management, not only of energy production management.


We can draw on biomass, but not in any conditions

The resource is indefinitely renewable, since it is also a derivate of solar energy, but with the express condition of replanting. If it represents today between 10 and 15% of the world energy supply, most biomass is not, today, a renewable energy : it corresponds to the use, as fire wood, of the timber obtained through land clearing for agriculture. If not replanted, wood use also leads to massive emissions ! (below)


Power generation : CO2 emissions in g/ kWh (life cycle analysis)

800 to 1050

gas turbines







1500 without replantation


60 to 150 (*)


3 to 22 (**)

From Jean-Pierre BOURDIER, La Jaune et La Rouge de Mai 2000

(*) The CO2 mainly comes from the manufacturing of the solar panel, but also of the battery that stores the electricity at night. Depending on the fact that these panels are manufactured in Denmark (electricity mostly coal produced) or in Switzerland (electricity mostly nuclear and hydro produced), the "CO2 content" of the panel is very different. The paying off is done in 20 to 30 years. But if "CO2 free" energies were used all along the cycle (manufacturing, transport, etc), and with "sober" technologies for the production (like thin layers) we would probably get to much lower values.

(**) same remark as above for the production country.

Some ways to use biomass, particularly the production of liquid biofuels, would require surfaces that are not compatible with available land if they were to substitute a significant part of our present oil consumption, and can, in addition, present a negative net effect on greenhouse gases emissions (either they require intermediate energy spendings that are superior to the final energy yielded, or the production and use of biuofuels free methane of nitrous protoxyde in superior quantities than fossil fuels),

using wood to heat homes has definitely some potential, but in densely populated countries (such as european countries) we might then need to eat less meat or do without timber wood because of land use concurrent uses.


We can draw on nuclear energy, at least in countries that have a good level of collective discipline

Uranium reserves are limited, but with breeders (either with plutonium, ot better with thorium), even assuming that the share of nuclear goes from 5% (present share of nuclear energy in the world mix) to 100%, we would have several thousands years in front of us, when the time horizon for fossil fuels is several decades only, all considerations on CO2 set apart.

most waste produced is solid or liquid, and very "concentrated", hence not too difficult to confine, which is not the case for greenhouse gases,

the amount of waste produced per kW, which is not considerable, can even be diminished,

The required land use is not considerable, even if drawing on this source for centuries,

Security and sanitary problems are objectively secondary ones in peaceful times, at least in developped countries,

Proliferation (using nuclear technologies for military purposes) is a real problem, but that now has little to do with civilian uses of nuclear energy : 80% of the world energy consumption is the fact of "rich" countries, that already have the bomb or the technological capacity to built it. If these countries increase the number of nuclear power plants in operation (USA, Japan and Germany leading the way), it won't have (alas !) any more consequence on nuclear proliferation. In addition a certain number of "poor" countries, including the two most populated in the world (China and India) already have the bomb, hence proliferation is a problem that is settled for these countries (one can regret it, and actually I do regret that such a weapon became so common, but we won't rewrite history, and giving up civilian uses of nuclear energy with the hope that everybody will then give up military uses of this technology seems a illusion to me).

Still civilian uses of nuclear energy raise some problems :

with the currently used technologies (using only fissile atoms) we "just" have a couple centuries of resources if the share of nuclear power remains at 5 to 10% of the world total (the latter not increasing),

it requires a stable society, with a minimum maintenance means (Chernobyl is more a sovietic accident than a pure technological failure), because it needs a constant watch of plants and waste, which is an inconvenient in countries that don't have a strong culture regarding security (but these countries may draw on natural gas if all the other ones, that have the ability to operate nuclear power plants, heavily draw on nuclear !),

one can wonder whether, if an armed conflict happened, it woudl not be tempting for an ennemy to bomb the plants to cut electricity production (as it was done in Serbia), with potentially serious consequences (but maybe we can burry the future power plants ?).

And at last a nuclear power plant requires water to operate (to cool down the reactor). If the climate change under way was to frequently dry up the rivers used by the plants, it would prevent them from producing electricity.


We can use wind energy, but we should not expect miracles from it

Apart from the manufacturing of windmills the normal operations do not generate any significant residue (liquid, solid or gaseous),

the land requirements are rather low : in between the masts it is possible to use the remaining land for somethiing else (agriculture, or infrastructures...),

In France, we could get 50 TWh (1 TWh = 1 billion kWh) per year, that is roughly 10% of the present electricity production (or 2% of the present final energy consumption in France), but this would require a (very) large number of windmills.

And at last no wind generation can be conceived alone : it is necessary to have something in replacement when there is no wind, and this "something" can only be dams, or power plants operating on fossil fuels (see why on the page on wind power).


Wind power is probably less interesting than solar power for the following reasons :

it shares with solar energy the fact that it is an intermittent source of electricity, and therefore requires storage means if we significantly reliy on this source, but it does not allow, as solar does, direct heat production, with a much better efficiency than electricity generation,

it is more visible in the landscape,

it requires a specific grid (medium tension lines), when individual solar production does not require it.


And at last let's note that the present kWh production price for wind generation does not include :

visual impacts (nor....time and money spent to fight against opponents for these reasons !)

storage devices or complementary production means.



What would be the energy mix in an "energetically virtuous" world ?


The total primary energy consumption in France was 275 Mtoe in 2002 (graph below).


Total primary energy consumption in France since 1973 (in million tonnes oil equivalent or toe, 1 toe = 11.600 kWh). Electricity is converted on the primary energy equivalent (the one that must be spent in the power plant) and not on the final energy equivalent (the energy that comes out of the plant under the form of electricity).

Data from observatoire de l'énergie, Ministère de l'Industrie

But if we look at the "final uses" of energy, that is the energy we effectively use (the rest being lost in the production and distribution system) France "only" consumes 178 Mtoe.


Total final energy consumption in France since 1973 (in Mtoe). "Raw material use" designates the energy resources used as raw material (for exemple oil to make plastic, or natural gas to make fertilizers).

Data from observatoire de l'énergie, Ministère de l'Industrie


Without changing much to our present lifestyle, we could easily divide the energy consumption by two (in France, and by four in the US).

Indeed, the "best available technologies" of 1995 already allow, if applied to any use, a 50% reduction of the consumption (table below).


koe/person average 1995 (*)

koe/person best available technology


kg C/person best available technology (+)





of which thermal uses



all houses comply with performances of new buildings


of which household appliances



best equipment, standby optimization






of which thermal uses



same performances than houses


of which specific uses



standby optimization




50% savings on appliances






of which material production



best technol. & recycling


rest of industry









of which persons



cars 4 l/100 km (**) & 13.000 km/year


of which goods



lower power of truck engines, train...





1070 (***)
 Une France équipée systématiquement des meilleures technologies de 1995 (y compris pour les parcs de logement). Source : Les défis du long terme , Commission énergie 2010-2020, Commissariat général du Plan

(*) koe means kg oil equivalent ; 1 koe = 11,6 kWh

(**) 4 liters/100 km represents 60 miles to the US gallon ; this performance is close to that of the most economic cars (seating 4) sold in France today (for example a Lupo, or a Citroen C2)

(+) this designates the mean amount of greenhouse gases, in kg carbon equivalent, emitted for each appliance or use by a French that would only use the best techniques.

(***) in 1995 the CO2 emissions per person amounted to 1900 kg/year carbon equivalent

If we managed to divide our consomption by two, that is below 100 Mtoe in France for the final energy consumption, we could imagine the following energy mix, that would be compatible with the starting requirements :

solar could supply 20 to 30 Mtoe : we could have one solar heating per house of building plus a photovoltaïc panel on each roof or something alike,

biomass and organic waste could cover 10 to 20 Mtoe, mainly for heating (for the fraction not covered by solar heating),

hydro power (already contributing to 15% of french electricity) could remain at the same level, that is 6 to 7% of a final energy total under 100 Mtoe,

wind power could contribute a few % (but its inconstant delivery is a real problem, and we can't use it much if we don't want gas power plants all over the country)

the remainder (that is roughly 50 Mtoe) could be produced by nuclear power, before a possibly more efficient solar (and mainly a possibly more efficient storage !) might take on (but we wouldn't be wise to wait for that to avoid nuclear power : nuclear is better than oil !). Transportation should therefore mainly shift to electric or fuel cell cars (hydrogen being produced by thermocracking in high temperature reactors).


In the long term, we would only depend on solar and nuclear energy, with the followinf advantages :

no risk of resource depletion for as long as humankind will exist,

possibility to provide people with significant energy resources,

lesser competition for supplies (thorium is pretty abundant, and hydrogen - for fusion, if it is tuned one day - even more) and therefore lesser risks of war,

no additionnal greenhouse effect,

more robust system (less lines because all decentralized production - solar and biomass - does not need to be transported over long distances), etc.

We should note that in an "energetically vertuous" world, energy is primarily available as electricity, except for heating.


  What about fuel cells ?

Fuell cells only represent a way to convert a fuel in electricity. It is therefore no more and no less clean than the fuel used (and the way to produce it). In particular, if the hydrogen that fuels the cell comes from an hydrocarbon, which is generally the case (hydrogen is a produced by the chemical industry, and is obtained by cracking methane), the whole system emits about as much CO2 as if the hydrocarbon was directly burnt in a classical engine. The global efficiency is a little better than with a classical engine and it is possible to supress some local pollutants (particles, polycyclic hydrocarbons, nitrous oxydes, etc).

It is therefore an interesting technical innovation, but it is far from being a miracle solution under its present form, because it does not solve, for the time being, the double problem of fossil fuel supply and the CO2 emissions.

The only way to turn it into a really "clean" solution (on a climatic point of view) would be to fuel it with hydrogen produced :

either through water electrolysis, which would be performed with nuclear electricity, or possibly solar or wind generated electricity,

or through water thermolysis in high temperature nuclear reactors. (thermolysis is the dissociation of the atoms of a molecule under the effect of heat ; if we dissociate H2O we get hydrogen and oxygen, as with electrolysis).

We could also imagine cracking water in the middle of the Sahara with concentration solar to produce hydrogen then carried just like natural gas (but the efficiency of hydrogen transportation is very poor, due to a very low energy density per unit of volume of this gas), or install windmills on Greenland for the same reason (but we would need a large quantity !).

Coupled with a solar panel, though, a fuell cell could be used as a storage device (and solar energy specialist cannot imagine a development of solar generated electricity without a device of some kind to store efficiently the electricity) : the electricity produced when nobody consumes it is used to produce hydrogen - with the fuell cell, that would be "reversed" - which is stored and used later.


What we would loose in such a world


  Cheap fossil fuels, or of unrestricted use

Supposed not to be used any more, or only in some marginal cases, fossil fuels should be extremely expensive or of regulated use. It is therefore likely that massive taxes and/or specific regulations would apply to this kind of energy.


  Democratic airplanes

When someone flies, he(she) consumes the same amount of fuel that he(she) would consume alone in a small car over the same distance. On a return trip Paris-New York, representing 12.000 km, each passenger (if the plane is full) "consumes" beteween 700 and 1.000 litres (180 to 250 US gallons) of fuel, what is almost equal to the annual consumption of a smll car owner in France.

This means of transportation has an annual growth of 5% (well it depends on the year, but it is the means of transportation that has the fastest growth rate). In 1992, the CO2 emissions generated by the international air trafic represented the equivalent of the emissions of Great Britain, and in 2050, if we prolongate the trends, they could represent up to 1,5 times the present emissions of the US (that would be 40% of the CO2 emissions of the entire planet in 1990 !).

This issue is so important that the IPCC has published a report in 1999 that was discussing just this topic.

On the other hand there is no known alternative to chemical fuels for air transportation (electricity is not suited to large planes today). We might keep a couple planes - with astronomic fares - using hydrogen and/or synthetic liquids obtained from biomass, but the fraction of humanity that could benefit from this air transport would seriously decrease compared to today.

The "energetic virtue" is therefore incompatible with the present soaring of air transport, and a very sharp decrease (something closer to 90% than to 5% !) of this way to travel would probably be a non debatable component of this "virtue".


  More generally speaking the ability to move often, fast, and cheap

Moving fast consumes a lot of energy (this comes from the laws of physics !). It is a fact that planes are more energy intensive than trains, and cars more energy intensive than bikes.

By other ways moving without restrictions requires transportations means that are often oversized for most of the uses : to be sure not to lack room and speed the day we leave for holidays, with the 3 kids, grandma and the caged parrot, we buy a car able to seat 5 (in Europe) that has on average ....1,5 passengers, and able to reach 180 km/h, that on average, in urban trafic, goes below 20 km/h, all things that lead to a deplorable efficiency.

In urban zones (where 80% of the population lives in France) the efficiency of cars is very low compared to alternatives : a bike - that weights 15 kg at most - is often as fast as a car - that weights one tonne - when the distance is under 5 km, and both carry the same 70 kg of the driver.

Even taking into account the additionnal food for the cyclist (which generally remains more slender than the car driver anyway, see below) shifting from car to bicycle enables a division of the energy required to move by 40 (for the same distance).


Energy spending per depending on the means used. For cars it is a mean value taking the average number of people in the car into account .

Most data from ADEME & INRETS

The difference between modes is even more important if we look at greenhouse gases emissions (in France) :


Passengers : greenhouse gases emissions per, depending on the transportation means, in grams carbone equivalent

Most data from ADEME & INRETS


Goods : greenhouse gases emissions per, depending on the transportation means, in grams carbone equivalent

Most data from ADEME & INRETS


If we suppose we only keep the most efficient transportation means, in such an "energetically vertuous" world there would only remain :

train and boat for long trips (that would require a longuer time, just like it was in the previous centuries when energy was scarcer than today),

mostly metros, buses, some shared car (taxis included) and some trucks in dense urban zones,

buses, shared cars and some trucks in medium dense urban zones,

small vehicles in rural zones (but people would travel less than today),

non powered means (bicycles, walking, rollers....) to move around (let's say for any trip inferior to a couple km), whatever the zone is.


The requirement to "do with" less transportation than today would logically require than urbanism be adapted to a society not as rich in transportation possibilities :

Cities would be more dense than today (or at least no more spread), because the most "virtuous" cities for the energy spending per habitant are also the denser (below)


 Energy spending per habitant, in tonnes oil equivalent per year (horizontal axis) vs density of the urban zone, in inhabitants per hectare (vertical axis). It is obvious that dense cities have a much lower energy spending linked to transportation.

From Newman and Kenworthy, " Cities and automobile dependance ", Gower, 1989

low density zones of cities could remain only if it became possible to find everything on the spot (as it was when energy was scarce), that is every basic need within walking or cycling distance (heavy collective transportation means - like metros - are already uneconomic in low density zones, that could only be more true if energy cost higher) or...via the networks (for telework for example). This would be equivalent to recreate villages rather autarcic as far as physical meeting would be concerned.

at last, the indispensable renewable goods being produced in the countryside (food, wood for timber or heating, and a little space to produce electricity) it is not forbidden to think that an "energetically vertuous" world would be a world without large cities : concentrating populations in large cities implies long distance transportation to bring in all what people consume and that cannot be produced on the spot (and energy spend to scatter all the waste produced afterwards). Besides, before abundant energy, the population was mostly dispatched in small units (that could be very dense : in old european villages, houses are often packed one next to the other), which is a beginning of proof that this modality of space occupation is the most efficient for the society as a whole.


  Hypermarkets far from houses

Various studies have shown that hypermarkets in the suburbs generate larger energy consumptions per unit sold than in town shops, as a result of two facts :

the average distance between the hypermarket and its customers is much more important than for intown shops

suburb hypermarkets can only be accessed by car.

The "energetic virtue" is therefore not compatible with this form of commerce.


  Cheap manufactured goods (and some services)

If we charge the industrial sector with the transportation (of goods), the energy used in buildings (additionnal to industrial processes), the industry and related services consume, in industrialized countries, more than half the total energy spending (table below).

1995 share

Offices and buildings


thermal uses (heating, hot water)


specific electricity



intermediate production (1)


other industry



 people, for business purposes (2)



TOTAL (on 160 Mtoe final energy)

Energy spendings for industry and related services in 1995

From Commissariat Général du Plan

(1) includes basic materials production (steel, glass, etc)

(2) personal estimate : business related trips represent roughly 30% of all trips

Producing basic materials (steel, glass, cement, paper, plastics...), in particular, consumes about 4/5ths of the overall industrial consumption, transforming these materials afterwards being much less energy intensive. In addition almost all these production processes are hard to perform without having high temperature heat, hence without combustion. A large reduction of the energy consumption therefore supposes a much lesser amount of basic materials produced per person.

As a consequence manufactured goods in general, and disposable products more than the rest, would see their relative cost increase, and the consumption per person of these goods (in weight) would decrease. Rental would develop to the detriment of owning.


  Disposable packaging

As a result of what preceeds, the "energetic virtue" is not compatible with the proliferation of disposable packaging that contribute to waste basic materials. In such a world we would see :

the end of disposable sprays and the return of manual sprays,

the end of plastic bags and the return of reusable bags,

the end of plastic bottles, canned drinks, etc

the end of meat packed in polystyrene, potatoes packed in plastic bags, etc

a decrease of the paper consumption...


  Cheap house building

In order to build a house today we use a lot of energy :

the basic materials used are energy intensive : cement, steel, plastic, glass, and lead to important greenhouse gases emissions,

transporting those materials over long distances also requires cheap transportation and therefore cheap energy.

In a world where fossil fuels would have disappeared, and as biomass would not allow a significant substitution, it would probably be necessary to come back to traditionnal materials (wood, stone) that induce more expensive construction costs.


  Houses intensely heated in the summer and intensely cooled in the summer

All this consumes energy ! Lowering the temperature (in winter) by one degree can save 7% of the consumption....


  Lots of meat

Meat production is not a good business for greenhouse gases (nor is it for water) :

producing one tonne of beef meat (with bones) generates 3 to 4 tonnes carbon equivalent, that is as much as for 6 to 8 tonnes of steel ! It is not exagerated to say that today we eat oil, since an intensive agriculture is required to produce all the plants to feed all the cattle, and intensive agriculture is not possible without mechanical force and fertilizers, all things that would not exist in such quantities without oil,

we just need 500 1iters of water (130 US gallons) to produce 1 kg of potatoes, but producing 1 kg of beef from irrigated crops requires 20.000 to 100.000 liters (8,500 to 42.000 US gallons), because up to 50 kg of cereals is required to produce a kg of beef meat.

It might be interesting to recall that the meat consumption rose just as the energy consumption, jumping from 20 kg/person/year in 1800 to 100 kg/person/year today (in France).


  Particularly McDonald's ! (but this is valid for any burger joint)

Besides the fact that these restaurants are large "consumers" of beef meat, a number of other characteristics of these "restaurants" are not compatible with the "energetic virtue" :

Most restaurants are McDrive, located out of the town center, and that can only be accessed by car,

For one hamburger bought at McDonald's, one generally throws away a plastic foam packaging that required (lots of) energy to be manufactured, plus a paper bag, and various other waste,

most of their products come in frozen, well this induces greenhouse gases emissions (through halocarbons and energy spending).

Those that don't like McDonald's might therefore see here a good reason to have that opinion : they are very far from incitating to "energetic virtue" !



What we would probably win

  More jobs

The present public system relies much on taxes on salaries (social security, retirement plans, etc) and not much on taxes on energy.

Becoming sober for our energy consumption would probably require the opposite : lower the taxes on work, and increase the taxes on energy. A lower taxed human work would probably lead to more jobs, particularly among the low qualified categories.

Many partial results support this hypothesis :

Some of the studies quoted above for the energy spending of suburb hypermarkets also show that these hypermarkets induce twice less jobs in the economy (per sales unit) than intown shops, what shows that in this case high energy content and high job content are antagonistic,

A study of the french INRETS also demonstrated that travelling a km by bus induces twice as much jobs and consumes twice as less energy than the same km travelled by car,

A more complete study of the Oko-Institut (in Germany) led to the conclusion that penalizing car transportation, which is favourable to the lowering of energy consumption, creates 2,5 times more jobs than is destroys (download here the summary in PDF format).

Another study (but I don't recall the exact title and source) shows that organic agriculture was richer in jobs per unit produced than "classical" agriculture,

A partial study (quoted in a paper during the summer 2000, but I did not keep the article) indicates than building a highway can have bad consequences on local jobs among small companies and craftsman (that have to compete with large companies using lots of machines and remote workers paid low wages).


  Less noise

Noise is largely a consequence of energy use, be it through transportation, factories, machines.... A world more sober regarding energy would probably be much less noisy than our present world. In Europe, 22% of the population is exposed to transportation noise at a level that exceeds 65 dBA during daytime (date from INRETS).

Cars and trucks have the lion's share in the nuisances : 90% of the people that complain about transportation noise in France expressely designate road transportation.


  Less local pollution

A large part of the local pollutants are associated to the use of fossil fuels, be it in cars, in power plants operating on coal, oil or gas... : NOx (nitrous oxydes), SO2 (sukfur dioxyde), CO (carbon monoxyde), O3 (ozone), various hydrocarbons, benzenic derivates, particules, etc,

Another part of the local pollutants comes from car use, without resulting from combustion : road dust, particles coming from the wearing of tires, brakes, etc

In a world where combustion would be scarcer (this is valid because wood and biofuels cannot substitute all oil, gas and coal, otherwise this assertion would be false : a wood fire is a big cigarette !) and where there would be less cars, it is very likely that local pollution would decrease (qith the same technological level, of course).


  Less congestion

Congestion basically comes from the use of a large number of individual transportation means. If transportation becomes essentially collective, or with light individual means (bicycles or...legs), a large part of congestion will probably disappear. One should note that electric cars, if they were circulating in equal numbers than "classical" cars, will not allow the least to solve this problem.

In addition congestion essentially happens in very large agglomerations, of which the existence itsself is not compatible with the "energetic virtue", as stated above.


  Probably less stress

The "always faster, always bigger" that presently governs the economy of "developped" countries being the main driving force of the energy consumption increase, a much lower energy consumption would not allow this kind of goal any more. Well a large part of the present stress is linked to this "always faster" : when in holidays, for example, we "take our time", which illustrates the fact that going as fast as possible is not always a spontaneous behaviour.

An "energetically vertuous" world would probably allow less stress, unless, of course, the decrease of the energy consumption is the result of some unwanted event (war, recession, etc) and then it is likely that during the transition stress would increase !

One of the arguments in favour of less stress, if the "sobriety" is wished and organized, is that in France criminality rates tend to be proportionnal to the fraction of the population liviing in large cities (below).


Criminality rates by region in 2000 : crimes and delictual acts per 1.000 inhabitants

The three "red red" regions correspond to Paris (largest city in France) then Marseilles, Montpellier, Nice, in short all large cities of the Riviera. The regions just after include Strasbourg, Lyons, Lille, etc. The palest red corresponds to two regions with no large cities.

A population that would be spread more homogeneously on the territory migh therefore be less prone to criminal acts, which could be seen as the reflect of a population globally happier. One can also note that replacing fossil fuels by muscles (which is one of the components of our virtual world, see below) gets people physically tired, and when we are tired we are less likely to do foolish things !


What would probably change, without necessarily be a gain or a loss

  More decentralized energy

As a significant part of our energy supply would come from local renewable sources in suche a world, we would have personnal production means (solar panel, wood boilers, windmills, reversible fuell cell, etc).

This being said, the other part, which will heavily draw on nuclear, might be even more centralized than today. On particular, if there is a production of synthetic fuels ex-hydrogen produced in nuclear reactors, it will require plants as important as refineries, and therefore the existence of operators as large as oil companies today (electricity companies are generally much smaller).


  More telecommunications ?

One might think that an "energetically vertuous" world require a substitution of physical transportation by virtual transportation, e. g less transportation of goods and more transportation of information. This would require important telecommunications infrastructures, and telework would perhaps develop.

But for the time being these infrastructures are mostly used to get more services while still moving physically as much : I buy my milk on this web site, then a book on Amazon, but fot the rest I still go to the supermarket by car with the same frequency, or I use the time saved to go and see my parents by car... The increased speed of circulation of the information then allows the increase of the energy spending per person, even if the energy efficiency of each service taken one by one can increase.

In the same way, a large fraction of the software industry is directely or indirectely aimed at increasing the productivity of the manufacturing industry, and then the "information society" does not replace the "consumption society", but on the opposite becomes an important component of the latter. For example, one of the consequences of the rise of telecommunications is to allow anyone to discover things he did not know of before, what will increase his desire to buy goods or go places.

And at last, using less energy supposes to use more elbow grease : right now it is possible to have 70% of the population in offices because the remaining 30% can, with the help of machines, produce all the material goods we consume. But in 1900, when the energy consumption per person was a tenth of what it is now, 80% of the population was working with its hands, in fields.

If the energy consumption decreases, won't we see a certain come back of manual work, that doesn't need sophisiticated telecommunications to thrive ?


  More physical exercice

Using less motive power would probably suppose to use a little more our own muscles, particularly to move around (walking, cycling...).

Inconvenient for some : it's tiring !

Advantage : it is daily exercice. Precisely because it is tiring, we would be slender and better off (and certainly less stressed : a reasonable physical exercise is a factor of good balance). In the USA (where one person out of two is obese or overweight), the only factir which is perfectly coupled to obesity is the number of cars in the country (read the corresponding article).

Another article (Time, 4 september 2000) gives the following figures for the States :

Percentage of Americans that declare they don't have any physical activity (Time 4 sept. 2000)

Percentage of obese Americans (same article)


  More travelling with public transportation

The fact that it is pleasant or unpleasant varies depending on individuals. Personnally, if I consider the case of the suburban train, that I take when I commute to Paris, which is heated in the winter, reliable, silent, that allows me to read, work or listen to music (and even fall asleep when coming back from Paris on Saturday nights without ending in a ditch), I consider that it is much more comfortable - and much less stress - than driving to the capital.


  A modification of the daily timetable

As mechanized auxiliaries require energy, the time spent to use them should decrease. Hence the following occupations should represent a larger part of the waking time :

manual work : a "virtuous" world is not necessarily a world with a "information economy", and chances are that it would be exactely the opposite. At the beginning of the 20th century, the economy was perfectly material, and nevertheless the energy consumption per person was much lower.

extensive personnal occupations (doing odd jobs at home, gardening, etc) when they do not require heavy mechanization,

cultural activities in a broad sense, including training,

associative life,

transportation raises a question : if we did the same number of trips, that would take much more time, but in such a world we would probably move less.


What public policies are not compatible with a wish to achieve the "energetic virtue" ?


In the speeches of any representative of any developped country, two mottos are very frequent :

it is necessary to do something about global warming and save energy.

it is necessary to have a growing economy.

It happens that most of the decisions taken in order to achieve the second goal are perfectly incompatible with the first.

Without dealing with morale here, a given number of behaviours are therefore totally incompatible with a broader objective of "energetic virtue".

Maybe it should be recalled as a preamble that the economic world is not the real world but a conventionnal representation (that is based on a certain number or rules that humankind has set up) of the real world. Considering that the economic world surpasses the real world is a nonsense. It's on similar considerations (the conventional world of religion was deemed superior to the real world of an astronomist) that Galilee was nearly sent to the stake.


  Liberalizing electricity supply with "everything else remaining the same"

Liberalizing the distribution of electricity, which is mostly produced with fossil fuels in the world (even in the developped world), has a clear objective : satisfy the consumer (if it is aimed at something else, please let me know !). Let's translate : the objective is to lower the prices. When reading the reactions to what happened in California in 2001, when the prices went up following a deregulation of the sector, one clearly understands that things did not behave the expected way.

Well, having lower prices generally leads to an increase of the consumption, with greenhouse gases emissions that would rise also. Without an explicit constraint on CO2 emissions that would be planned from the beginning, a liberalization of the electric sector is not compatible with the fight against global warming and therefore with the "energetic virtue".

The same reasoning can be applied to the liberalization of gas distribution.


  Pulling out of nuclear energy

If we consume a given quantity of electricity, pulling out of nuclear production means that the electricity must be produced another way. The potential of wind power, of solair and of biomass being limited in the short term (and for some even in the long term) this will induce the necessity to draw more on fossil fuels.

Pulling out of nuclear production in the short or medium term - and in the long term we are all dead, said Keynes ! - is hence not compatible with a wish of "energetic virtue".


  Not increasing the prices of gasoline when they are ridiculously low....

This is the case in the USA for example, that have low taxes on oil products, and that emit twice as much CO2 per person than Europe, where taxes on oil products are generally much higher (but people are happy also !).


  ...or lowering them to please the voter (ignorant)

A lowering of the taxes - everything else remaining the same - leads to an increased consumption in the short term : it is one of the rare really solid economic rules (the recent example of the mad cow disease shows that everything else must indeed remain the same : if the context becomes different, it is possible to have in the same time a lowering of the prices and a decrease of the consumption).

More generally, everything that contributes to making driving more economic advantages this means of transportation, and therefore increases at the same time the emissions and the difficulty to change habits later.

A lowering of the taxes on fuel oil (for boilers) or on natural gas will have similar effects.


  Encouraging the consumption of material goods

Increasing the industrial production in volume - what induces an increase of the energy consumption - is not compatible with an objective of "energetic virtue". Prolongating the present world trends for a couple decades lead to results that leave thoughtful....

The "energetic virtue" is therefore not compatible with the fact to consider that a nation is in good healt when it has a vigourous growth of such indicators as industrial production in volume, consumption of manufactured goods by the households, etc.

In particular, the "energetic virtue" is not compatible today with economic growth.

We could imagine to have a the same time a growth in value and the "energetic virtue", since economy is only a convention. But it is not possible to obtain the cohabitation of growth in volume - that represent the physical world - with "energetic virtue".


  Encouraging air transportation

Planes are the heaviest gas-guzzlers of all our transportation means (see above). Going towards an "energetically virtuous" world therefore supposes, among other things, not to build new airports, neither to realize extensions of existing airports, or to give financial favours of any kind to plane companies. On the opposite, such a wish of "energetic virtue" would imply taxes on kerosene, which do not exist right now.

An consequence of this conclusion is also that "energetic virtue" is not compatible sith the development of airborne long distance international tourism.


  Going on building roads

The energy efficiency of trains is fourfold that of trucks for goods, and threefolds that of cars for people. It is therefore not compatible with the "energetic virtue" to go on building road infrastructures, of whatever kind (highways, but also wider streets...) in order to allow higher speeds for cars or better conditions for road transportation (the lifetime of road infrastructures is around one century).

Certainly the driving pleasure is temporarily increased when a new road infrastructure is built, but the energy consumption is increased also (not temporarily !).


  Allowing cities to spread

City spreading is the phenomenum through which cities occupy more and more land without gaining many more inhabitants (in France the population grows slower than the urban land). This spreading is spectacular (below).


France in 1936 : 41,5 million inhabitants

France in 1999 : 58,5 million inhabitants (+40%). Some urban areas have increased tenfold while the country has emptied.

> 1000 pers/km2 500 to 1000 pers/km2 200 to 500 pers/km2 100 to 200 pers/km2

70 to 100 pers/km2 50 to 70 pers/km2 30 to 50 pers/km2 < 30 pers/km2


This is the result of a increasing land use per inhabitant :

individual homes require more land than flats (people used to move from homes in the country to flats in cities, and now move from flats in cities to homes in the suburbs),

an inhabitant in the suburbs (vs. intown) requires more land resources for roads and railways,

I do not have the data but I am ready to bet that for the same turnover a shop intown occupies less space than a commerce in the suburbs (buildings more horizontal, more parking space, necessity to build specific accesses, etc)


This city spreading encourages a double energy consumption increase :

the daily distance driven intown is lower than in the suburbs :

Nature of data



Far suburbs

suburbs of small rural towns
Number of cars per 100 people




 % of diesel




Average age of cars in years




Average distance to work in km




Daily distance driven per adult, in km, outside the Paris Region




Same, Paris Region




Data from : L. Hivert, " Le parc automobile des ménages en décembre 1994 ", INRETS/ADEME ; P. Martin et G. Rennes, " Le parc automobile des ménages ", INSEE Résultats n° 569 à 571 ; Champ : grandes agglomérations de province, année 1994 ; J.-P. Orfeuil, " Les déplacements domicile travail dans l'enquête transports ", INRETS ; C. Gallez et J.-P. Orfeuil, travaux en cours sur l'enquête transports.

a house requires more energy to get to the the same inner temperature than a flat, since for the same living space a house will have more wall - and roof - surface in contact with the outside.

Greenhouse gases emissions, in kg carbon equivalent per year and per m2 of living space, depending on the nature of the housing and its localisation.

Data from Jean-Pierre Traisnel & al, Les cahiers du CLIP, avril 2001

The item "other energy consumptions in the housing " designates hot sanitary water, cooking, etc.

In addition to all the previously examined factors, in the suburbs the living space per person is generally higher. As a result of all these factors (more driving, more m2, higher energy spending per m2 for heating, etc) the emissions per inhabitant for the sum housing + moving go from 1 to 3.



Flat near suburbs

House remote suburbs
Age of housing






M2 living space per person



Emissions linked to buildings (heating, maintenance, etc)






Emissions linked to moving










Greenhouse gases emissions, in kg carbon equivalent per year and per person, depending on the nature of the housing and its localisation.

Data from Jean-Pierre Traisnel & al, Les cahiers du CLIP, avril 2001

As a result of all that preceeds, encouraging city spreading is not compatible with the wish to curb the energy consumptions, and particularly the following is not compatible with the "energetic virtue" :

creating "economic zones" in the outskirts of cities,

creating residential suburbs in the city outskirts,

creating new road infrastructures on the outskirts of cities (that generally allow the construction of new buildings accessible only by road ), no matter what advantages these new roads are supposed to have in the short term,

mortages aimed at allowing modest people to own individual homes in the remote suburbs, where they will spend a fortune in driving and they will become "prisonners" of cars, in addition to contributing to an increase of emissions.


  Encouraging airborne international tourism

Eurodisney has become the first destination for tourists in Europe (12 millions of visitors per year). If 6 millions visitors (out of 12) come by plane, with a corresponding emission of 200 kg carbon equivalent per person (what supposes 50% coming from Europe et 50% from elsewhere), we will com to the total of 1.200.000 tonnes of carbon equivalent, or the annual emissions of 600.000 French people (or 30% of the emissions of all the people living in Paris).

I could have chosen the example of the Club Med, and more generally such activities based on planes are totally incompatible with a wish of "energetic virtue".


  Encouraging cattle raising

Meat production generates much more important greenhouse gases emissions per kg than vegetal production. To produce a kg of beef meat it is necessary to emit roughly 40 times more greenhouse gases emissions than to produce a kg of wheat.

All subsidies to cattle raising (and more generally to intensive agriculture, which is necessary to feed important livestocks) are therefore not compatible with a wish of "energetic virtue".


  Not giving 20% of our taxes to developping countries

Developping countries, that globally consume 6 to 10 times less energy per person than we do, have one wish - that we cannot oppose on the grounds of morale (we could do it on the grounds of selfishness, but then it should be said clear and loud !) - which is to consume not much less than we do.

Maybe we could try to prevent them from doing so through the setting up of a world dictatorship, but it might be a little difficult to achieve since some of these countries have the bomb ; and anyway an analysis of this kind of regime shows that the happiness of the jailers is not much greater than that of the prisoners.

Well if the developping countries equipt themselves with the cheapest technologies for energy generation, they will mostly choose coal fired power plants, coal boilers and gasoline cars, hence contributing to an accelerated fossil fuel depletion, and to an increase the greenhouse effect, two processes for which the consequences do not happen within the borders of the "bad boy".

In the name of a well understood selfishness, we shoud meassively finance them so that they get quickly equipped with solar panels, public transportation systems (that require heaviest investiments than cars), nuclear power operated in good conditions, and the "good ideas" to prevent rural exodus, in short that they benefit from the most recent technological breakthroughs instead of beginning with the "fossil fuel" stage, which consequences we will support as well as them.

This would perfectly justify :

to allocate a significant part of our taxes to help "poor" countries : aren't our taxes destined to prepare the future, which will not be charming if greenhouse gases emissions soar ?

that we stop considering as good news the high exports of plane, power plants or cars manufacturers, or the conversion to hamburgers of the local population...


  Not establishing tariff walls for products imported from the US

One of the ways of retaliating to the fact that the US has high greenhouse gases emissions would be to set up tariff walls for their exports to Europe, that would be proportionnal to the "carbon content" of their products. Hitting them in the wallet would be much more efficient than shouting high and loud that they are immoral or dreadful (which they are no more and no less than ourselves).


What are the possible consequences for the economy of a choice of "energetic virtue" ?


It should advantage small businesses and disadvantage large companies

Large multinational companies have an organisation model which is generally to produce massively, with the help of machines, in a small number of places in the world, and then transport their semi-finished or finished products all around the world. This is allowed by (and in fact a logical consequence of) cheap transportation, high productivity of machines, and expensive human work.

Two components of this organization model would not remain possible in an "energetically virtuous" world :

Massive mechanization, and therefore reductions linked to large scale productions (that would be more difficult to achieve) would partially vanish,

long distance transportation : a larger fraction of the production would have to be done next to the consumers.

The "energetic virtue" would therefore oblige large companies to produce more locally and with less machines, what would supress part of the scale economies. It would comparatively be favourable to small businesses.


It should penalize jobs in the manufacturing industries and favour those in the services.

The german Oko Institut has studied the impact of a hashening of taxes on road transportation in Germany, with a set of other hypotheses that are not constitutive of a technological or societal rupture ; thet just constitute an inflexion of the present trands (it is possible to download here the summary in PDF format)

The net result is given below and explains the title of this item : industries lose jobs, services win some.


It should advantage individual construction and penalize infrastructure construction

We would build less heavy infrastructures, that generate energy consumption (airports, roads, etc), therefore it would disadvantage public works companies,

We would need more arms to do the same thing when building something, since energy will be costlier, and therefore it will increase jobs in the sector,

All the outfits that would be installed in homes (better insulation, installation and maintenance of solar panels, maybe fuell cells, etc) would generate an important activity among the crafstmen of construction (plumbers, carpenters, etc).


It should penalize the sales of manufactured goods and advantage rentals

If the price of basic material production increases (as the result of a higher energy price), the relative price of manufactured products will increase. On the opposite, rentals (and repairs) would be more competitive.


It should penalize the transporters and advantage the logistics

If the relative cost of transportation increases (logical economic consequence of its rarefaction) the entities in charge of managing at best the remaining capacities should see their activity increase.


It should lead to the end of "just in time" and recreate stocks

The energy spent by mass unit decreases when the global tonnage transported increases. Transporting sall quantities "on demand", which is very energy intensive, but an essential component of "just in time", would disappear, what would lead to the re-creation of stocks.


It should penalize international trade and advantage local economy

This seems logical : transportation becoming more expensive, everything that is "intensive in transportation" (as international trade) will become less competitive. If international trade becomes less competitive, it will advantage on the other hand everything which is local : if the first expense for a shirt produced in China is the transportation cost, maybe french manufacturing may know a come-back !


It should penalize large stores in the outskirts and advantage intown shops

This is a simple consequence of a previous item exposing that intown stores are less energy consuming per sales unit than large hypermarkets in the suburbs. Building more hyprmarkets is therefore not comaptible with the "energetic virtue".


It should penalize international tourisme and advantge local tourism

This is a simple consequence of a previous item exposing that physical mobility would decrease.


It should penalize large energy producers and advantage local

This would result from the increase of prices of energy on one hand, and on the other hand from the larger share coming from renewables with local sources. It is therefore logical that large energy producers are opposed to "energy sobriety", as the reconversion as individual devices producer is not easy. This being said, maintening an energy proficiency just to preserve the energy companies is like keeping a tax just to preserve the jobs of those who perceive it...


Would it advantage the software industry ?

substituting goods by information (when possible) should be beneficial for the software industry

software development in itself is not very energy intensive (on the opposite this is not valid for computer manufacturing),

but software development, up to now, has basically being used to boost the industrial productivity or the direct energy consumption (for example yield management in plane companies). A "sober" software activity is the one which is self sufficient (games, learning...) or the one that helps decreasing the energy consumption.


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