Newly industrialized and transitional countries have experienced more turbulent energy intensity trends. South Korea's energy intensity increased during the country's rapid growth period of the 1980s and 1990s, but then declined sharply following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Since the early 2000s, the Korean government and industry have sought actively to shift the country's energy use patterns by focusing more on advanced technology R&D and clean energy initiatives.

Global energy intensity is likely to keep rising in the next few years as the world continues to rely on large-scale infrastructure development as a means to create jobs and bring the global economy out of recession. However, South Korea's switch to a more environmentally friendly development pattern may mirror global trends. In the long term, a green transition could boost new industries, including clean technology and renewable energy, and cause global energy intensity to continue its decline. 

"The area of saving energy and using it more efficiently is one of the two key components of a sustainable energy transition, the other one being renewable energy production," said Alexander Ochs, director of Worldwatch's Climate & Energy program. "Our research has shown that 50 percent or more of global electricity demands can be delivered by renewable energy if - but only if - renewable energy is implemented in tandem with energy efficiency."

Further highlights from the article

  • Global energy intensity declined at an average annual rate of 0.98 percent in the 1980s and 1.40 percent in the 1990s. From 2001 to 2010, the rate dropped to 0.03 percent.
  • Between 1981 and 2002, China's energy intensity declined 4.52 percent annually. Between 2005 and 2010, it declined a staggering 15.37 percent, although this fell short of the government's goal of 20 percent. One reason for this shortfall is that more than half of China's 4 trillion RMB (630 billion USD) stimulus plan was invested in infrastructure development, which drove up energy consumption.

Worldwatch's Climate & Energy program identifies key components of energy and transportation systems that aim to de-carbonize the global economy, boost energy efficiency, spur innovation and job creation, address resource scarcity, and reduce local environmental pollution.