The idea of meeting our energy needs through higher efficiency is a beguiling one. No one is against technologies that make our energy go further. But efficiency cannot solve our energy problems. The historical trend has been that as we have become more efficient, so we have used more energy.
As efficiency has increased we have not chosen to do what we did before with less energy. Instead we have chosen to use our energy to do more. With improved efficiency the price of energy falls and we use more of it. Economists describe this as a ‘boomerang effect’, using it to account for the failure of measures designed to save energy.
In fact this trend is a positive one. It shows that human beings have not yet run out of ingenuity with which to devise new ways to make use of energy. Nor are we likely to soon run out. According to the New Economics Foundation and Friends of the Earth, if everyone were to live like Americans – that is to say if the developing world were to develop – then we would require more than five planets to sustain us (1). That’s not true. But it could mean that we will need five times as much energy.
Nor is there any reason to stop there. Many Americans, like those trapped in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina without motor transport, do not live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Even for the rich it is easy to imagine ways in which energy use may continue to grow, whether through space tourism or just a proliferation of everyday gadgets.
In short, we will continue to need more energy.
But today the prospect of expanding energy supply is greeted with trepidation. Energy is now about catastrophic risk: the risk of dependence on unstable regions of the world, the risk of accident or terrorist attack on nuclear power stations, and above all the risk of climate change. In this atmosphere many would prefer an alternative approach, that of using less energy. Bringing down demand is seen as less fraught with danger than expanding supply.
Generating energy takes investment and work. It seems like common sense that if we can cut back then it is better to avoid the problems of expanding supply. If only we understood the ‘true costs’ of energy, goes this line of thinking; we would be less profligate in our energy use.
There are different schemes for making us account for the costs of energy. They range from raising awareness and education, through to taxation and trading in carbon emission permits that are designed to weigh the problems associated with energy into market prices. All these plans share in common the presumption that left to our own devices we will too often prefer using more energy to doing without. This approach leads to an obsession with metering, monitoring and regulating everyday behaviour.
The suspicion of energy is based on an overestimate of the problems and an underestimate of the potential of expanding energy supply. Society is capable of dealing with pollution. We can bury carbon dioxide under the oceans. The more that society develops, the more easily we will thrive in a warming world. If we were not so frightened of nuclear materials being diverted to terrorists we would be working on recycling of waste into new fuel.
We need much more investment in energy production, especially in nuclear power, clean fossil fuels, and large hydroelectric dams. Other renewables will have a role to play too – there will be no shortage of demand – but will make sense only when they can be deployed on a comparably large scale. Miniature windmills of the sort installed by David Cameron and Jamie Oliver serve no useful purpose beyond a show of ethical correctness.
The modern energy supply has liberated us from worrying about where energy comes from. Electricity at the flip of a switch has freed us to concentrate our own human energy on more novel plans. But for many environmentalists today this itself is the problem. What if those novel plans include flying the world, which might disrupt fragile ecosystems or destroy local cultures?
The expansion of energy supply is seen as an attack on future generations. We are continually reminded of energy’s toxic legacy in the form of nuclear waste or greenhouse emissions. The consumption of resources is attacked as eating into ‘natural capital’ as if it were a selfish squandering of our children’s inheritance. Such a vision suggests that the more we do now the worse will be the future. The conclusion would be that the best we can do is to do less. Our present actions are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
But the best thing that we could do for future generations is to build a new energy infrastructure, bigger and better than the old one.
Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer.
(1) New Economics Foundation, The Unhappy Planet Index, 2006