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HPWH are one of the lowest hanging fruits on our decarbonization pathway. Image by Barb Burwell.

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The Unsung Success Story of Increased Efficiency (And Why We All Need More of It)

This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.

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A number of organizations have charted a path to a decarbonized world by 2050 and broken down required action in four areas or “pathways.” In recent posts, we discussed the first two pathways — decarbonizing electricity and electrifying everything — and how individuals can take part in, and move the needle on, these global and local strategies. Today’s post covers the third pathway, which is often the unsung hero of our climate successes to date — efficiency.

Source: Naomi Cole and Joe Wachunas based on pathways of decarbonization from the World Bank and images courtesy of Unsplash

Pathway 3: Efficiency

Simply put, efficiency means using less of a resource to achieve the same result. The 1970s oil embargo and energy crisis inspired the modern energy efficiency movement in the United States, which led to a $360 billion energy efficiency industry. This industry managed to keep both energy and electricity usage flat over the last 20 years despite the fact that the population has grown by 10% from 301 million to 331 million over the same period.

While overall American energy usage has nearly tripled since 1950, it’s been flat since 2000, thanks to energy efficiency. Image courtesy of US EIA.

According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, over a 25 year period from 1980 to 2014, efficiency investments resulted in a 50% improvement in US energy intensity. This means that while energy use increased by 26%, overall gross domestic product (GDP) far outpaced energy use, increasing by 149%.

Image courtesy of ACEEE.

These decades of unsung progress have significantly reduced energy use in buildings, industry, and transportation and thus lowered demand for more fossil fueled power. Amidst the doom and gloom of the climate crisis, it’s important to remember to celebrate and amplify what we humans are doing right. Efficiency falls on the bright side of the “best of times, worst of times” dichotomy that we discussed in our introductory post, so let’s make sure to give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back for our success here, humanity.

We might call efficiency the low hanging fruit on the pathway to decarbonization. There’s so much more to be picked.

Efficiency sometimes gets a bad rap because it so often includes messages of scarcity like “reduce” and “limit,” and can feel like doing less bad rather than more good. And the narrative suggests people have to sacrifice or change their lifestyle, which few want to hear. But this is largely a communication problem. Amazing advances in technology mean that our homes and vehicles can use less energy without anyone noticing and without sacrificing our quality of life. For example, fridges use 75% less energy now than they did a couple decades ago and they perform better and cost less. Light bulbs have followed the same trend, accounting for 10% of an average home’s electricity consumption in 2015 and only 4% in 2021, thanks to LEDs. A decarbonized life has many advantages and thus offers a narrative of abundance rather than scarcity. Denmark uses about 40 percent of the energy that the U.S. uses and yet it’s recognized for the second highest quality of life in the world.

Taking Efficiency to the Next Level

While we celebrate all these immense, societal-wide gains in efficiency, in our family we find it pretty easy to take efficiency to the next level and believe the climate crisis asks this of us. For us, being efficient and wasting less involves both:

1. Technologies — the products, appliances and fixtures in our home that reduce energy use through their operations. Think efficient appliances, insulation, LED lighting, etc. (shower heads are a personal favorite), along with what we call the “big moves” of heat pumps for space and water heating, which cut home energy use by a whopping 50–75%.

2. Behaviors — the routines, habits, and practices we form that have a measurable impact on carbon reduction. (Hang drying laundry and eating less meat are some personal favorites.)

We’ll dive into this interplay between technology and behavior in a couple of weeks, but our point is that combining both strategies will supercharge energy savings and make it easier for our utilities, or rooftop solar panels, to provide all the clean power we need.

But it’s also clear that efficiency isn’t a silver bullet, and we can’t “efficiency our way out” of the climate crisis. Many of the efficiency solutions of recent decades included enhanced methane and petroleum burning technologies, but no matter how efficient your gas furnace or gas car is, it’s still burning fossil fuels which are emitting greenhouse gasses that are changing the climate. This is why efficiency and the electrification pathway go hand in hand. It’s a lot easier to electrify everything and run our lives on clean electricity if we first reduce our energy needs.

Our old gas furnace, which we replaced with a heat pump in 2012 combining efficiency and electrification.

At the same time, while many proponents of electrification believe we can decarbonize without worrying much about efficiency, we are of the mindset that a commitment to efficiency, both the technologies and behaviors, is the best way to make electrification work. Efficiency lowers how much new renewable sources of electricity we’re going to need in the coming decades.

Our Efficiency Strategies

Our family’s efficiency strategies (which mostly now feel like old school stuff) include blowing in extra cellulose insulation into our attic, to increase home comfort, and air sealing all the penetrations so conditioned air doesn’t sneak out. Other strategies include installing low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators to reduce both water and the energy used to heat the water.

Over a decade, we also replaced most of our old appliances with ENERGY STAR–certified, all electric, super efficient ones, and opted for heat pumps to heat our home and water and to dry our clothes because they are the most efficient way to create heat. We also practice easy passive cooling techniques during our increasingly hot summers, which most of the time means we don’t need AC. Finally, we bought our home in a neighborhood with a high walk score so that we can move efficiently and walk, bike, and ride transit whenever possible. All these efficiency moves made it a lot easier for our family’s 28 solar panels to meet most of our home and transportation energy needs.

All in all, efficiency is a crucial pathway to personal and societal decarbonization, and knowingly or not, we’ve all gotten a lot more efficient in how we use energy over the past decades. It’s time to build on this success and continue to find ways to use electric, renewable energy better.

What’s Next?

We’ve introduced three pathways of global decarbonization, and next week we’ll tackle the final one — sequestration. After that, we’ll start our deep dives on the “big moves” that hold the most bang for the buck for decarbonization and money savings.

This article is part of a new series called Decarbonize Your Life. With modest steps and a middle-class income, our family has dramatically reduced emissions and is sequestering what remains through a small reforestation project. Our life is better for it. If we can do it, you can too.

Related Stories:

This New Year — Decarbonize Your Life

Clean Electricity Shows The Way To A Decarbonized World

Why Electrifying Everything Is A Critical Pathway To Decarbonize The World & Our Lives


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Joe Wachunas and Naomi Cole are passionate about decarbonizing their lives. They both work professionally to address climate change — Naomi in urban sustainability and energy efficiency and Joe in the electrification of buildings and transportation. This passion, and their commitment to walk the walk, has led them to ductless heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, induction cooking, solar in multiple forms, hang-drying laundry (including cloth diapers), no cars to electric cars and charging without a garage or driveway, a reforestation grant from the US Department of Agriculture, and more. They live in Portland, Oregon, with their two young kids and write about their decarbonizing adventures at


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