What if, contrary to conventional wisdom, climate change is not actually primarily an energy problem, and by thinking of it as an energy problem, we risk making huge mistakes in the coming years?
What do I mean by energy problem? A problem caused by our choice of energy sources.
Given that a large percentage of greenhouse gasses comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it seems odd to contend that climate change is not a problem created by our energy choices. Certainly, no one with any credibility denies that coal, oil and gas use is changing the climate, and I don't mean to suggest that at all (though it is also worth not losing sight of the considerable emissions that come from farming, forestry, the chemical industries and other sources).
What I mean is that when we look to address the central challenge presented by climate change -- creating widespread prosperity while lowering, and then eliminating, emissions -- changing energy sources might play a much less important role than we've been trained to think. The kind of energy we use, in other words, while important, may not be anywhere near as important as three other considerations: whether we use the energy we create at all; how we use it; and how we live.
Whether we use the energy we generate: much of the energy we generate is wasted in the process of generation or transmission (56.2%, here in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). As I understand it, by wasted we don't mean that it's used, but not used effectively. We mean that it is not used at all. It is the current dumped into the ground by power plants whose generation exceeds demand and other generated energy that accomplishes no task.
Based on what I've been told and read, much of that systemic waste is an attribute of badly-designed big systems, and could be eliminated through a variety of different new approaches, from smart grids to more efficient turbines to the harvesting of waste heat in industrial processes. As I understand it, no system can be perfectly effective at eliminating wasted energy, but if we managed to slash energy waste in half -- all other things being equal -- it'd be like eliminating roughly 25% of our energy-related emissions.
How we use energy -- what I've heard described as energy efficiency at end use -- is equally important. Amory Lovins has consistently pointed out the myriad ways in which our current uses of energy are extremely inefficient. We all know about the energy savings of a compact fluorescent lightbulb over an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb. Well, on a metaphorical level, our society (especially here in the U.S.) is nothing but old-fashioned light bulbs, nothing but opportunities for improvement. As has been pointed out again and again, not only are large energy savings immediately possible, but many of these energy savings pay for themselves or already profitable, while many others would become profitable with even moderate carbon pricing and/or green tax shifting.
How we live may be the biggest nut to crack. As we've discussed before, where we live has more to do with the amount of energy we use -- and the amount of energy we could save -- than almost any other factor. We can save huge amounts of energy by stopping sprawl; encouraging smart growth, good design and transit; using density to promote green building and green infrastructure; and emphasizing a prosperity based on experiences rather than stuff and product-services rather than products. These are steps that eliminate the need to use energy in the first place, while delivering the same or better quality of life. To extend our light bulb metaphor, it's like not needing to turn on a light in the first place, because you have a window through which sunlight is streaming.
In fact, if what we're committed to is prosperity, rather than a particular suburban SUV-and-McMansion vision of wealth (I, at least, am convinced that vision is a doomed project over the medium-term no matter what path we take), then a big shift towards bright green living might be possible even with only modest shifts in the sources of energy -- if the shifts in the uses of energy were large enough. A radically more-efficient society of compact communities with a variety of transportation choices, green buildings and smart infrastructure, run off an only slightly-improved mix of energy sources might be more sustainable than a society that continues on our current path of increasing sprawl and waste but uses twice the proportion of clean energy that it does today.
Obviously, we want both. We want renewable, low-carbon energy fueling a compact and efficient society. But attempting to meet the increasing energy demands of an essentially unchanged (and rapidly spreading) vision of suburban prosperity (whether in suburban Atlanta, suburban London or suburban Shanghai) through the provision of more and more and more clean energy seems pretty much guaranteed to fail. And in a society with limited resources and attention, pushing a strategy based primarily on clean energy may in fact reduce our ability to go after other, more important systemic solutions. (For instance, here in America, I would rather see a national smart growth agenda than a national clean energy subsidy.)
So maybe it's time to stop calling climate change an energy problem?www.worldchanging.com