By Dave Elliott
The UK Energy Technologies Institute’s report by Jeff Douglas on Decarbonising Heat for UK Homes notes that ~20% of CO2 emissions are from domestic heating, but says insulation/upgrades won’t cut that enough: ‘the scope for cost effectively reducing the energy demand of existing buildings to the great extent required to meet emissions targets is limited as comprehensive insulation and improvement measures are expensive and intrusive. A several hundred billion pound investment in demand reduction for the entire building stock might deliver less than half of the emissions abatement needed. The most cost effective solutions therefore involve the decarbonisation of the energy supply combined with efficiency improvements that are selectively rather than universally applied, as part of a composite package’.
An interesting paper has recently been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings” (see http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/08/06/1001509107.shortb) by Attari et al. This paper provides insights into how people view the quantity of energy consumed for various tasks that are normal in an industrial society. The paper authors conclude that people generally overestimate the energy savings for changing habits related to saving low quantities of energy while underestimating energy savings associated with saving larger quantities of energy.
This research shows some of the difficulties in using surveys to assess perceptions and reality of how energy impacts our lives. Take for example the following in which the respondent is asked to select how strongly he/she agrees or disagrees with the statement:
“We are approaching the limit of the number of people the earth can support.”
Today, human population is approximately 6.7 billion. If you believe that the earth can only support 2 billion people, then you could strongly disagree with the statement on the grounds that we are not approaching that limit, but that we have far surpassed the limit. However, if you believe the earth can support 12 billion people, then you might also strongly disagree with the statement because you think we are far from the earth’s limits (i.e. we are not yet “approaching the limit”). So two completely different answers might prompt selecting the same response to the statement.
The results for the questions pertaining to values and behavioral questions (e.g. how hard do you think it is to change your energy consuming habits) are not presented in the PNAS paper by Attari, but these are important questions to ask. Many people believe that the vast majority of people will not willfully conserve energy without financial penalties (e.g. high prices or taxes) for consumption. I fall into that category myself. We find ourselves in an interesting time as for only the second time in the last 40 years we (in the US) have reached a point where over 10% of GDP was spent directly on primary and secondary energy.
The first time period was from the mid 1970s-mid 1980s and likely in 2008 as well (see figure). The first time over 10% of GDP was spent on energy was driven by political events – particularly the Arab Oil Embargos and the Iran-Iraq War. This most recent worldwide economic recession starting in 2008 was not driven by a particular political event, but has been a growing trend for almost a decade (at least with particular reference to the US).
The US broke out of the recessions cause by the oil shortages of the 1970s by investing in energy efficiency for vehicles (Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards), only to find itself equally or more dependent upon oil for economic growth today as in 1970. Important questions are: Will the US meet its new CAFE goals (reaching 35.5 miles per gallon for vehicles sales; 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for trucks and sport-utility vehicles) by 2016? This targeted increase is approximately the same percentage increase in fuel efficiency as occurred from the 1970s to the late 1980s in meeting the original CAFE standards. If the US (and the world) is successful in reducing oil consumption per mile traveled by 2016 (or soon thereafter), will we only find ourselves in the same position 10-30 years down the road? In other words, will we just wait until we consume too much gasoline for it to take too much out of our wallets to again think about restructuring the way our economy functions and consumes energy?
There are reasons to think this time is different. This time we are well past peak oil production for the US. Perhaps we have reached peak crude oil production in the US and so far the statistics seem to point to that possibly being true (but it will take several more years to confirm the full truth). In reading the August 15, 2010 issue of Science which talks about scaling up of renewable energy, there are two articles about biofuels. One article in particular (“Challenges in Scaling up Biofuels Infrastructure” by Tom Richard) notes the logistical issues with making fuels out of biomass. Richard discusses much about how we are supposed to create a viable supply chain for the relatively low-density biomass materials to go from the farm to the biorefinery and finally to the consumer. The reason that this is such a hard problem is that the net energy of the biomass fuel is so low that it is not obvious that we can run our current economy as designed if using these fuels to any large degree. That is also a major difference now from the 1970s – we’re actually really trying to grow an economy using biofuels instead of just making cars run on less fuel and importing more oil.
I agree with some prognosticators that attribute all global warming to natural processes. From normal cycles of the atmosphere to the regular Earth orbit and wobble about its axis. From sunspots to wildfires, natural processes dominate the flux of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into and out of the atmosphere. But there is one natural process that is usually categorized incorrectly: the actions of that species that is Homo sapiens.
H. sapiens, or we humans, follow the same trend as many other animal species in discovering food and energy resources and using them to proliferate and maintain numbers. However, we have a seemingly innate ability to acquire knowledge and pass it on to younger generations such that the subsequent H. sapiens don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” every generation. This accumulation of knowledge began with the first writing, continued with the teaching of agriculture for stable food supplies, and is now culminating in the transfer of information (and much of it simply data or low-value information) across the internet as is occurring when you are reading these words.
The process of accumulating knowledge, using that knowledge to create even further new knowledge of how to make new tools and extract and use natural resources has been occurring for approximately 10,000 years. Over this time, we have discovered laws of physics, incredibly advanced the science of medicine, and established societal laws and governmental structures. All the while we H. sapiens expand in population (with a few bumps in the road due to disease) and extract more renewable and fossil resources from the Earth each year. H. sapiens is a part of this Earth just as much as are Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout), Gorilla gorilla (Western Gorilla), and Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia). Granted, the trees have a hard time extracting resources beyond their roots, and the trout don’t have opposable thumbs that allow them to grasp rocks in the stream bed to make houses or fish pens. G. gorilla have thumbs but don’t seem able to venture out far from their original habitat. Most plant and animal species simply expand when resources (prey, nutrients, sun, rain, etc) are abundant and contract when they are scarce – simply a response to immediate stimuli. But those darn H. sapiens make clothing and shelter that allows them to stay in climates and conditions for durations that would otherwise kill them. This learned planning ability to plan ahead for the future seasons and years has been used to further the natural expansion and reach of humans across all continents of the globe.
With these thoughts in mind, why call anything done by us humans to date anything other than “natural”? We don’t make steel, we find iron ore and carbon-containing substances to combine them when heated to form a substance with new properties we call steel. Using steel and other transformed materials we assemble objects, composed of many of these refined and purified substances, that would otherwise not exist on Earth. But oysters do the same thing in constructing their shells. We just do it a lot more, a lot faster, and into more materials.
If we consider the terms “man-made” and anthropogenic as describing actions that go against the continued expansion of Homo sapiens, then what past decisions can fall into that category? Two candidates come to mind: (i) the Chinese one-child policy and (ii) the OPEC/Arab Oil embargoes of the 1970s. it In restricting the spreading of a sixth of the world population, the one-child policy is meant more to preserve the Chinese state more than the humans in general. But don’t short-change the one child policy as being a possible climate policy – as was suggested by some at the recent Copenhagen talks.
And the oil embargos, in hindsight, could be considered the first greenhouse gas policy and/or energy conservation policy. By restricting the flow of resources to a large part of H. sapiens, the leaders of a few resource-rich countries triggered a drastic change in the growth of energy consumption of the world, and hence greenhouse-gas emissions. Annual growth in world energy consumption was increasing close to exponentially until the 1970s, and after that it has been growing only linearly (i.e. at a slower rate). We could possibly attribute 100s of exajoules (or quads) of annual energy conservation to OPEC.
Perhaps embargoes and tariffs in general are a truly man-made construction. The one-child policy and oil embargoes were targeted with the intention of preserving the wealth/power of certain political entities – one with some intent to punish other political entities. Political states being the result of increasing complexity in society, they are inherently man-made. Thus, organization by treaty and by writing is man-made. And perhaps that is why negotiating a limit on greenhouse gas emissions was not successful in Copenhagen this December – because such a limit is a man-made restriction of a natural tendency, not a natural restriction of an anthropogenic tendency.
A recent article (“Leaping the Efficiency Gap”) in the August 14, 2009 edition of Science discussed the now classic argument of how far energy efficiency takes you to conserving energy. The general answer is so far, not much. The article discusses Arthur Rosenfeld starting an energy efficiency program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the mid-1970s, and how he and many were convinced that reductions in energy consumption could be achieved by advances in technology. The article also notes how Lee Schipper of Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center took offense to President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 ‘cardigan’ speech in saying that in order to save energy sacrifice was needed and some sacrifices would be painful. Schipper wrote a letter to a congressman arguing that conservation did not have to be painful. Schipper is then quoted as saying he was wrong and Carter was right.
After 35 years of the efficiency v conservation debate, I think there is much more understanding that energy in the US is still cheap and has not generally dicatated decision making by businesses and citizens. Perhaps the last few years represent a turning point in that the CO2/climate argument has put a differnet spin on the question. But when we think of the word sacrifice, particularly in the US, are we really sacrificing to reduce our annual per capita energy consumption from the range of 350–370 GJ/person (330–350 million BTUs/person)? The world average is 75–80 GJ/person, and approximately 23% of the world’s population live in countries consuming up to 100 GJ/person/year.
Since the 1970s the accumulation of statistics on energy and human development have allowed us to see that most human basic needs in terms of food access, health, and longevity are achieved at approximatley the 100 GJ per capita level. There are of course a few exceptions to any rule, but the tendency of diminishing returns on most of the important quality of life measurements when consuming over 100 GJ/person is extremely enlightening and provides great perspective.
As a possible extreme example, I recently purchased a house that had a three-star green building rating (by the local utility) yet has 17 recessed lighting sockets in the main room of approximately 800 square feet. Two light switches control 7 light bulbs each, so there was clearly a need to install low power-consuming light bulbs (or remove some of the light bulbs) so that 400–500 W of power are not consumed just to light half of a room. When materials and energy got cheaper from efficiency gains and technological advancement, many times people just bought or installed more gadgets.
On the other hand, the per capita energy consumption of the US has remained relatively flat for the last 35 years due to many infrastructural and behavioral changes, even though total energy consumption has gone up due population increase. This same pattern holds for the electricity consumption of the state of California – a point that the Science article makes as the total electricity consumption rose similarly to the rest of the country.
It seems that most of solid energy conservation gains in the US stemmed from actual mandates and legislation, not business operations. After all, we measure economic growth based upon the flow of goods and services, not the amount of resources that we have in stock. Businesses are naturally incentivised to increase efficiency of operations, including using less energy per product, so subsidizing them to do what economics should drive them toward is perhaps a bit ridiculous. Subsidizing them to actually consume less energy, measured as total energy, not energy/product, can make more sense.
Many famous entrepreneurs and politicians have stated their visions in the past, and we have acheived them. President Kennedy targeting putting a man on the moon. Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) targeting a personal computer in every home. But none of these targets have anything to do with using less, they are always for using more.
I think what we need is confidence that we can actually remove something from our homes and lives (here I’m thinking of the US), because we know that decreasing our energy consumption by 100 GJ/person/yr probably won’t affect anthing fundamental in that Americans will then conserve energy at a rate that is still more than Western Europe. Granted, some things would certainly be hard to give up – I’m sitting in Texas right now where high temperatures of at least 38°C can occur for 3 months of the year, but other regions of the world experience this as well. But do we seriously think that there isn’t the ability to 25% of our per capita energy consumption? Most of the reduction would likely come in the combination of reduced travel and smaller/lighter vehicles. Telecommuting and teleconferencing exist also. Exposing people to the correct prices of energy and food will also help.
So I propose this new challenge of removal, not addition: remove 100 GJ/person from the average American footprint.
The level of ‘sacrifice’ is to be determined.