Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Catch-22 of Energy Conservation

One way often cited to improve energy conservation is by increasing energy efficiency. It sounds perfectly logical, in theory.

In practice, however, improved energy efficiency can actually backfire. From the Toronto Star:

A paper by CIBC World Market economist Jeff Rubin argues that, historically, improvements in efficiency that were meant to reduce the consumption of a commodity have increased usage as it became cheaper.
The result is that energy intensity strategies may not work in the battle to cut down the use of oil and gas, as well as carbon emissions believed to cause global climate change.

Rubin says the only sure-fire way of reducing energy consumption and, by extension, cut down greenhouse emissions is to shrink the economy, an unpalatable proposition to governments and industry.

While this is not an argument against attempting to increase energy efficiency in the economy, Rubin says that for greater efficiency to reduce usage, it will be necessary to ensure that consumers don’t see lower prices.

Whew, I'm glad this bit of wisdom came from a bank economist, not Greenpeace. Rubin's findings and conclusions may come as a shock to many but they're anything but new.

It's going to take a lot of adjustment and an awful lot of convincing skeptics, but the growth model on which we've based our national and global economies is over. It's not just climate change. It's resource depletion, species extinction, desertification, freshwater exhaustion, water and soil contamination, air pollution, chemical toxicities, overpopulation - you name it.

It may take a decade, maybe two, but we will gradually come to understand the need to shrink our economies. We'll do it not because we don't want wealth but because we want to survive even more. We're finding it extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible, to get the necessary consensus to implement meaningful action on global warming. That's just one problem of many that we need to address, simultaneously.

The notion of shrinking economies has already been examined at length. The scientist, James Lovelock, has coined a term for it, "sustainable retreat." He uses that term to describe getting smaller but doing it as affordably and comfortably as possible. In other words, this process doesn't have to resemble a scene from some post-apocalyptic movie, the image the global warming deniers like to use to scare the public. In some ways it's as easy as doing a lot more of a bit less.

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