China, European Countries Best U.S. on Energy Efficiency

A study puts European countries, Japan, China, Australia ahead of the U.S.


China may have an ugly environmental record, but a new report suggests that when it comes to energy efficiency, it is besting the United States, as are many of the world's other major economies. According to a new report, the U.S. ranks No. 9 of 12 major global economies in terms of energy efficiency, dragged down by its poor performance in the area of transportation.

The rankings come from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a research group based in Washington. The UK tops the list, and Germany, Italy, Japan, and France round out the top five.

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The study scored countries on a 100-point scale, using 27 metrics grouped into four broad categories: national efforts, buildings, industry, and transportation. The top-scoring U.K. scored 67 points, while No. 9 U.S. received only 47 points—9 points behind China, Australia, and the E.U. tied at No. 6.

It may be surprising that the U.S. should rank 9 points behind China, a country that is not only the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter but also plagued by numerous other environmental problems. And indeed, digging deeper into the numbers shows that the country ranked better than the U.S. despite some glaring deficiencies.

"China came out first in two different categories and tenth in two different categories. It wasn't that it had average performance across all [categories]," said Sara Hayes—one of the report's authors and a senior researcher at the ACEEE—during a press conference at the National Press Club on Thursday. China rated at the top of the study in buildings and transportation but at the bottom of the heap in national effort and industry.

ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel also pointed out that "the U.S. has helped China enormously" in providing technical assistance and guidance toward better energy efficiency in areas like building codes.

When asked about the U.S.'s performance, Robert Ichord, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Energy Resources at the State Department, pointed to the numbers behind the rankings.

"The aggregate numbers obviously need to be unpacked. ... Clearly we have world-class companies that are involved in all aspects of energy efficiency," he said at the Press Club event. Indeed, the U.S. is No. 6 in industry, with companies performing well in terms of R&D investment and the use of energy-efficient combined heat and power to generate electricity.

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Transportation is one key factor holding the U.S. back in the rankings. Of a potential 23 points, the U.S. scored only 5 in that category, which takes into account factors like public transit usage, fuel economy, and the miles traveled per capita. Americans travel the most vehicle miles per capita out of the 12 countries, and along with Canada, travel the least on public transit. Meanwhile, China, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom all led this category, each scoring 14 points.

However, there are always challenges in comparing one country to another. Some countries have distinct advantages over the U.S. when it comes to transit, according to Ichord.

"The U.S. is a huge country. The transportation system is gigantic compared to the UK, and therefore in a sense there are some aspects of comparison that are not captured in the metrics," he said on Thursday.

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The U.S. had its best performance in the category of buildings, tying for fourth in that category, which takes into account building labeling, appliance and equipment standards, and energy usage. Meanwhile, the U.K., at No. 1, was tops in industry and transportation, second in national effort, and fourth in buildings.

The top countries might be celebrating their performance, but they perhaps shouldn't pat themselves on the back too much.

"While many countries achieved notable success, none received a perfect score in any category—proving that there is much that all countries can still learn from each other," says Nadel.