Why do we care?
Energy systems are closely tied to many aspects of sustainability. Virtually all economic activity depends on energy, some very heavily. Changes in energy price or supply have direct impacts on all sectors of the economy. Price increases can put marginal enterprises in energy-dependent sectors out of business, creating unemployment. Households will also feel the cost, if gasoline and home heating costs rise. Energy production and consumption also create pollution in the form of greenhouse gases, toxins, and radioactive waste, which harm our environment both locally and globally. Moreover our major source of energy is the combustion of non-renewable fossil fuels, which are fixed in total quantity. At current levels of energy use in western countries, our energy system is likely to be unsustainable in all of these ways.
How are we doing?
Several indicators are useful for evaluating our energy use. Total consumption, which is shown in Figure 34.1, is important from the perspectives of both pollutant emissions and fuel depletion. As the figure shows, this has risen steadily over the decades.
Per capita energy consumption is another useful indicator to track. It would not be possible for everyone in the world to consume energy at New Jersey’s level. Reducing our per capita consumption is therefore in keeping with the equity aspects of sustainability. Figure 34.2 shows, however, that over the past four decades we have consumed more rather than less energy per capita. While the state is implementing policies to reduce energy consumption and shift it to renewables and clean sources, our increases in consumption have so far overtaken the impacts of those policies.
What is behind these figures?
From the perspective of pollution, it is also useful to know what our energy sources are. Figure 34.3 shows New Jersey energy consumption by fuel type since 1969. Our reliance on natural gas has risen relative to our use of oil or coal, which is good from a pollution perspective. However our reliance on nuclear power has also increased markedly. While nuclear energy is good from an air pollution perspective, many people feel that the risks and long-term disposal issues associated with its use outweigh those benefits.
Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.