Reducing our energy consumption will be at the heart of an effective Sustainable Consumption Act, writes Jack Santa Barbara.

Opinion: Much of the world seems obsessed with technologies that will provide cheap abundant energy to replace fossil fuels. Almost daily we hear announcements of a new breakthrough in nuclear fusion development, or a more efficient solar panel or battery technology, or a new addition to the “hydrogen economy.”

The climate emergency has made clear the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But do we really need to replace the energy they provided? And is it even realistic to think we can?

Our history with fossil fuels should be a clear warning that we do not yet have the maturity as a species to wisely use enormous amounts of cheap energy.

The amount of cheap energy provided by coal, natural gas and petroleum over the last century is several orders of magnitude greater than the total energy consumed by all previous societies combined. The rapid rise of fossil energy use since 1950 allowed the enormous expansion of human societies across much of the globe.

Without fossil energy the rapid expansion of the human population, and the global economy would have been impossible. Almost all our built infrastructure and new technologies over the last half century have relied on fossil energy.

World primary energy use

A Gtoe is measurement for a gigatonne of oil equivalent. Source: Arnulf Grubler, Yale School of the Environment/International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Everyone living today has experienced the benefits of the cheap, abundant energy fossil fuels have provided. We have become addicted to fossil energy, and at the same time take it for granted because it is everywhere in our lives. We’re addicted, and like most addicts, we don’t realize we’re hooked.

The benefits made possible from fossil energy are extensive – no question.

But if we are to do a fair and complete accounting of the value of fossil energy to humanity, we also have to consider the costs. The evidence is clear that the net result is actually negative for humanity.

Most people now understand the negative impact of fossil energy use on our global climate system, and the very grave risk the climate emergency presents to humanity, and other living systems.

But we are largely missing another major impact of fossil energy use that is of even greater concern to many scientists – what the vast amount of cheap abundant energy has allowed us to do to several planetary systems, not just the climate system.

Energy is the capacity to do work. And “work” in terms of basic physics is the capacity to move matter. Fossil energy use over the past 70 years in particular has allowed humans to move considerable amounts of matter (natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable).

We have moved so much matter that we have displaced and/or disrupted so many natural systems that those planetary systems can no longer function the way they used to.

The natural systems we have degraded, and continue to do so daily, are unfortunately ones required for our survival and wellbeing.

Climate change is only one of these planetary systems. Biodiversity, nutrient cycling, hydrologic cycles, and natural waste disposal cycles are all being disrupted on a daily basis. None of this destruction would be possible without cheap abundant energy. If we couldn’t move so much material so cheaply the destruction wouldn’t happen.

Many scientists have tried to warn us of the risks involved in actually destroying the very natural systems we depend on. Yet we continue doing so with fossil energy, and now seek alternatives to continue the destruction.

The only way we can end the destruction of natural systems is to stop interfering with their functioning.  These systems have evolved over eons and produced the unique conditions which gave rise to complex life forms, a rare if not unique phenomenon in the universe.

The only way we can stop interfering with the functioning of natural systems is to stop using so much material resources. And if moving considerably less material resources in the future is our route to salvation, then we need less energy.

Significantly reducing our energy consumption is the single most important action we can take to securing a liveable future.

Along with our current drive for more cheap abundant energy to replace fossil energy, there is a growing awareness that we have to significantly reduce our ecological footprint. But because few seem to have any sense of the magnitude of the footprint reduction required, we cling to the belief that we can do both – produce more cheap abundant energy, and reduce our footprint.

The available evidence indicates this is a fantasy – believing our addiction to cheap abundant energy can be satisfied while respecting planetary boundaries. These two aspirations are in serious, and growing, conflict.

Let’s look at some of the ways we think about these two aspirations to understand the essence of the conflict.

So-called “renewable” energy technologies like solar and wind are considered as significant replacements for fossil resources, and the rush is on to achieve ever more efficient and “environmentally” friendly developments in these and related battery technologies. From an ecological footprint, perspective the rapid expansion of these technologies would be disastrous.

None of these “renewable” technologies can be built without fossil resources, or without massive mining of more metals and rare elements, or unsustainable use of genuinely renewable resources.

But there is an even more basic concern. Consider for a moment the enormous amount of energy used to build our modern industrial civilization – much more than the total energy consumed by all humanity prior to the industrial revolution.

Now consider that we would need to replace that amount of energy with a series of technologies with less favourable physical characteristics than fossil energy.

The energy density of “renewables” (the amount of energy stored or storable in them and available for use by society) is much lower than that of fossil energy. So we would need more “renewable” infrastructure to achieve the same amount of useable energy.

That more “renewable” infrastructure means a lot of solar panels, windmills, hydrogen containers, lithium batteries and hydro electric dams. That means moving a lot of raw natural materials to satisfy the demand for these new technologies.

The global expansion of the “renewable” energy system would have a significant additional adverse effect on the natural systems already under pressure from our current ecological footprint. The greenhouse gas emissions just from building out a global “renewable” energy system would drive the climate into seriously dangerous areas.

Because these technologies rely on non-renewable resources they are by definition not sustainable (that is, not genuinely renewable). Scaling up a global renewable energy system will exhaust many key minerals, leaving little or nothing for their replacement when the initial units wear out.

Our “renewable” technologies will only have a shelf life of a few decades.

We are deluded to think we can produce a new global energy infrastructure at the scale we currently use, and repeat this expansion every few decades as the infrastructure wears out.

We hear a lot about “decoupling” of energy and material use, or energy and carbon emissions. Largely, this decoupling is said to result from greater efficiencies in modern technologies. We also hear a lot about the “circular economy,” whereby raw materials can be recycled repeatedly to obtain greater benefit from the same materials.

As for decoupling, it may occur in particular nations as they outsource production to other countries. This is known as relative decoupling. But what is needed is absolute decoupling at a global scale if we are to actually reduce our collective footprint.

There is no current credible evidence that absolute decoupling is physically possible, and a strong theoretical basis to indicate it is impossible.

The circular economy has many useful components. We should clearly be designing things to both last a long time, and to be easily disassembled and the materials recycled. But recycling can only occur a limited number of times.

Even a very high recycling rate of 90 percent will provide greatly reduced amounts of the material after only a few cycles (reductions of 50 percent after only six iterations).

The main problem with the circular economy is that is does not have a target for how much material it can actually circulate in the economy without transgressing planetary boundaries. Indeed, this lack of a clear goal for what constitutes truly sustainable consumption is at the heart of our current blindness regarding our relationship with the natural world.

Let’s be clear that we have to use the term “sustainable” carefully. We should be using it as it is defined – capable of being sustained – to provide what is needed to exist.

Our ecological footprint is telling us that our current rate of consumption is not sustainable – that it will not allow us to continue to exist.

Too often we seem to refer to some product or activity as sustainable when we actually mean it is a bit less unsustainable – but how much less is never stated. This misuse of the term “sustainable” gives a false impression of progress – we are actually going backwards.

At some level of awareness we do understand the conflict between genuine sustainable consumption and natural systems. That’s why we try to make things less unsustainable. We know we have a problem. But without grasping the sheer magnitude of the problem (it’s huge), and a clear goal for the level of consumption that actually qualifies as sustainable, it is difficult to see how we can ever achieve it.

Humanity’s current quest for technologies to provide cheap and abundant energy is in direct conflict with humanity’s need for sustainable consumption.

Our technological cleverness is enormous. But unless it is guided by some wisdom about our relationship with the natural world, it will be our undoing.

One way of beginning this journey would be to supersede the Zero Carbon Act with a Sustainable Consumption Act, which clearly reflects the magnitude of the challenge we have, sets out a timetable for action, and specifies what actions to take. Reducing energy consumption will be at the heart of an effective Act.

Leave a comment