By Dave Elliott
In their powerful 2011 book ‘Techno fix’, radical North American ‘greens’ Michael and Joyce Huesemann challenged what they saw as ‘a pervasive belief that technological innovation will enable us to continue our current lifestyle indefinitely and will prevent social, economic and environmental collapse’. They said that techno-optimism was completely unjustified. If driven by continued economic growth, technology did not promote sustainability but hastened collapse. Instead we needed radical social change: ‘as long as technology is used for control and exploitation, negative social and environmental effects are inherently unavoidable.’ So they looked to a future of less invasive, decentralized communities, based on ‘the values of social and environmental harmony, cooperation and mutual enhancement’, with participatory design to ensure greater democratic control of technology and harmony with nature. technofix.org
By Dave Elliott
Green sector employment accounts for as many as 3.4 million jobs in the EU, or 1.7% of all paid employment, more than car manufacturing or pharmaceuticals. Will that expand?
A new UKERC report, “Low Carbon Jobs”, asks if policy-driven expansion of green energy actually creates jobs, taking account both of jobs created and jobs displaced, particularly when the policies in question require subsidies that are paid for through consumer bills or taxes. www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/Low+Carbon+Jobs
By Carey King
I just got back from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting that was held in Washington, DC. There were many sessions on the issue of sustainability and how to measure and track sustainability. One particular session regarding the concept of different measurements of ‘progress’ that might accompany a “steady state economy” was particularly interesting.
In 1997, ‘Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use’ by Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, agued that technical innovation could cut resource use in half while doubling wealth. A new book, upgraded to ‘Factor Five’, builds on this idea- looking at how and where factor four gains have been made in the intervening period, and at how we might achieve greater factor five or 80%+ improvements in resource and energy productivity in future, in line with IPCCs recommended target of 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
It provides an overview of efficiency opportunities across a range of sectors. The approach is very positive and optimistic, making it hard to make any criticisms without appearing churlish, as with a most work from what is now sometimes called the Amory Lovins school of analysis. But it ought to be asked- aren’t there limits to what can be achieved by energy efficiency? Using fuels more efficiently, in terms of both their conversion and consumption, means less emissions for the same amount of energy finally used. So obviously that’s a priority. Investing in efficiency is also often seen as an economically attractive option. It is certainly true that, in the past, since fuels have often been relatively abundant and cheap, we have not paid much attention to their efficient use. So there is a lot of potential for cheap and easy energy saving options which we can and should exploit. Initial Factor 5 gains seem not unreasonable expectations. However once these ‘low hanging fruit’ options have been exhausted, there will surely be diminishing returns: it will, in many cases, be progressively harder and more expensive to make further savings.
This is where there is a key disagreement. The Lovins school view seems to be that costs of energy saving will continue to fall as new technology emerges. It is certainly true that for most mass-produced items, prices do fall from the initially expensive first versions- think of DVD players. It’s the classic learning curve model. But it’s not true of all products- e.g. cars are getting more efficient, but also more expensive.
Can Factor 5 type efficiency/resource savings continue to be made across the board, with costs continually reducing? Especially also given the rebound effect- with cost savings from efficiency often being used to buy more energy services, so undermining the emission savings. The new Factor 5 book does recognise this issue (Lovins tends to have dismissed it in the past as ‘small’) but suggests that the way out is to ramp up prices of fuels and resources to squeeze out consumption and steer consumers to the use of less energy and resource intensive options, including renewables. Certainly, if the money saved from efficiency is invested in renewables, then you capture all the emissions savings. And, like Factor 4, the new Factor 5 analysis does include the use of renewables- it’s a key part of their programme. After all, quite apart from the rebound issue, that is where we might expect some major ‘Factor 5’ emission savings, i.e. from the widespread use of renewable energy supplies, although not necessarily with ever-diminishing costs. Clearly, whatever we do to improve efficiency, there will still be a need for new energy sources, as the availability of fossil fuels declines, and as we seek to avoid using them, for environmental reasons. But there are ecological and resource limits to how much we can get from renewables, and that means an acceptance of the need to curtail consumption at some point.
Whereas Lovins sometimes seems to have implied that we can all have more of everything, the new book challenge the simple ‘win-win-win’ belief that we can expect reduced costs and emissions while continuing to expand material consumption: it talks of rising eco-taxes and a focus on qualitative ‘well being’ in a more equitable world – a much more palatable, if maybe a little utopian, version of win-win-win, which most of us would no doubt be happy to sign up to. Growth may be vital for some developing economies in the medium term to allow populations to move beyond subsistence level, but it can’t go on forever, everywhere. The result, after all, does not bear thinking of- endless material growth in an increasingly fractious and alienated global society, until it all shudders to a social and ecological halt. Much as the Dark Mountain group fears: for their rather different view on how we should respond, see www.dark-mountain.net
The above is based on my review in issue 186 of Renew: http://www.natta-renew.org