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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Think about the whole sustainability picture before trashing energy efficiency in isolation

In recent days and weeks some of the well-known ‘intellects’ of environmentalism, both celebrated and somewhat infamous ones, have immersed themselves in discourse on what’s being billed as the great paradox of energy efficiency.

The nub of what’s also being called ‘the efficiency illusion’ is that making energy use more efficient encourages more use of that energy as the productivity gain achieved leads to overall economic growth.

I don’t want to re-canvass the whole argument, and you can find some key perspectives at sources including:

·        Breakthrough Institute - The Efficiency Illusion by Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Jesse Jenkins (Shellenberger and Nordhaus were the authors of a challenging essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ in 2004)

·        Bjorn Lomborg – No, you can’t help efforts to reduce global warming

What I immediately see, however, is the muddle-headed thinking you get when to try to solve any great sustainability challenge in isolation.

Energy efficiency skeptics, who in recent times have included such business luminaries as Bill Gates, make simple points by ignoring the interconnected complexities shared by both natural and human systems.

If the unrestricted aim was to stop pollution from the consumption of fossil fuels we’d just do something economically brutal like ban them, or make them so expensive that few could afford them whether efficient or not. Of course, the widely accepted downside is that this would collapse modern society as we know it and be politically impossible.

Further complication comes if you accept that sustainability has to integrate environmental, social and economic factors to achieve overall societal and ecological well-being in tandem.

That includes the imperative to raise billions out of poverty to give them a good standard of living, while dealing with a still-rising global population and a planet that already is exceeding its sustainable carrying capacity, while being faced with diabolical challenges such as climate change, water crises and species extinctions.

The real illusion is not efficiency, but the notion you can make all of that inconvenient truth go away while you contemplate perfect scenario solutions.

This wider sustainability reality forces us to look for more complex, hopefully achievable solutions instead of simple but unachievable ones. That’s where energy efficiency comes in, not in isolation, but together with other factors, most especially renewable energy, distributed generation, smart grids and rising energy prices.

Globally we are not in the privileged position of being able to easily trigger an orderly transition to a low-carbon economy. To avoid chaos we have to simultaneously lift up the massive populations of China and India and other less powerful developing world nations, giving their people a cleaner and less resource-intensive version of the developed world’s unsustainable lifestyles.

Unfortunately, and that’s a mild word for a challenge of the scale the world faces, we have to do more for more people as well as do more with less. More efficient delivery of services that underpin a modern economy, most of which in turn are underpinned by energy consumption, is a vital part of the solution equation.

Energy efficiency is most important as a tool for change, rather than as an end game. If by some miracle of 21st Century re-engineering of human civilization we arrive at a low or zero carbon economy with unlimited, inexpensive, 100% renewable energy generation then presumably we could abandon efficiency altogether and suck up electrons with unrestrained abandon. Imagine the power of our global economy then!

That sounds pretty illusionary to me, at least any time soon, so a safer bet seems to be to use efficiency gains to cut per capita emissions intensity in the current energy economy while accelerating renewable energy and other measures.

In Australia, as an example, a national assault on our relatively inefficient performance on energy efficiency can do much good immediately, especially when coupled with the market reality of rising energy prices and the likelihood of an added price on carbon in the next few years. Benefits I can see include:
·        Averting construction of any more large traditional coal-fired power stations
·        Helping to manage the short to medium term drought in investment in power generation capacity caused by uncertainty over a price on carbon
·        Accelerating the shift to the smart grid, with efficiency gains and demand management assisting in underpinning the business case
·        Creating space on the grid for a rapid rise of electric vehicles
·        Supporting the development of energy-efficient appliances and technologies that can be replicated everywhere
·        Engaging consumers in solutions in a sophisticated version of what has been achieved with recycling – it’s not perfect, but if you want people to demand action on sustainability at the cash register and the ballot box you have to make them part of the equation.

Meanwhile, whatever western environmental intellectuals opine, I bet the Chinese will be paying plenty of attention to efficiency alongside everything else they are doing to meet their great 21st Century energy challenge.

I am keen to know how others see this debate?

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