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Column: A Downside of Energy Efficiency?

[Editorial Note: Readers can better understand Suzuki's urgency by first reading a recent article on CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/world-hothouse-report-1.4775649 ]

By David Suzuki

In the race against the increasingly widespread and devastating consequences of climate change, solutions tend to focus on products and technologies. Renewable energy, electric vehicles, biofuels, carbon capture and storage and geoengineering get much of the attention, in part because they lead us to believe we can continue acting as usual. Those technologies must be part of the solution, but we must also consider our wasteful behaviours.

Conserving energy means consuming less, which isn’t a hallmark of our consumption-based economic system. Technology also comes into play with cutting energy use. Many experts argue that energy efficiency could play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially in industrial nations like Canada and the U.S., where we tend to waste a lot. Others point to a paradox whereby climate gains from efficiency are offset by reduced costs that increase energy demand.

One third of the world’s energy is consumed by buildings, but most are inefficient. According to Jennifer Layke, global director of World Resources Institute’s Energy Program, “Just implementing today's best practices could cut global energy demand by one-third by 2050.”

A study in Nature Energy concluded that energy efficiency without expensive (and so far commercially unproven) technologies like carbon capture and storage could help the world limit global average temperature rise to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

It seems simple. So, what’s holding us back? The desire of people to go on consuming as we’ve been encouraged to do since at least the end of the Second World War is one factor. Layke argues we also need to boost energy efficiency’s “cool factor.”

She and the scientists behind the Nature Energy study outline the many benefits of energy efficiency beyond reducing climate impacts. They also offer examples of technologies that will boost energy efficiency, including multi-use smart phones, programmable thermostats and electric autonomous vehicles.

“Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a fast, cost-effective way to manage carbon pollution, spur economic development and enhance local air quality,” Layke wrote. It’s also a way for individuals and businesses to save money by reducing energy costs.

The authors of the Nature Energy study say a global push to energy efficiency would have the side benefit of helping the world meet sustainable development goals, including reducing hunger, increasing good health and well-being and providing affordable clean energy for everyone.

Not everyone is convinced. Energy writer Andrew Nikiforuk argues in the Tyee that efficiency often spurs increased demand and does little to cut overall energy use. It’s known as the Jevons Paradox, after English economist William Stanley Jevons, who noticed in the mid-1800s that as coal-fired steam engines became more efficient and inexpensive, their use became more widespread, leading to increased coal burning.

“Oil-fired and electrical driven technologies have honoured the paradox with panache,” Nikiforuk writes, noting that efficiency caused aircraft fuel costs to drop, which led to cheaper fares and more passengers, and thus more flights. As boilers in Britain became more efficient, people started increasing temperatures in their homes.

According to Nikiforuk, “The only way to reduce total energy consumption levels, say in the aviation industry or any other sector, is to limit the number of planes, travellers and airports. Higher energy prices and higher taxes will do that. But that means a shrinking economy and a radical rethink about the dominant role of technology in our decision-making.”

Carbon pricing, through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems, can create disincentives for using fossil fuel energy while encouraging clean energy, and regulations can also help with the shift from dirty to clean energy and energy conservation and efficiency. But energy efficiency must be coupled with reduced consumption to be effective.

What’s really needed is a radical shift in our way of thinking. Making buildings more energy efficient is good, but people in those buildings still have to use energy wisely. Consuming, flying and driving less doesn’t necessarily mean living a poorer life. Focusing on relationships with family, friends and community and spending time in nature rather than accumulating stuff and constantly being on the move bring greater well-being and happiness.

Addressing climate change means heeding scientists’ warnings that climate change threatens civilization, and confronting the crisis with every tool available, from renewable energy to efficiency to wasting less food, energy and other goods.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.