Lovins: Climate change, efficiency and profits

In her recent address, Hunter Lovins indicated that what was happening at the Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair was far more significant for national security than taking shoes off at an airport. She reminded us of the boom and bust cycle of oil prices and the potential of an oil glut bringing prices down once again. At the time of her presentation, demand for oil from China and India was driving prices higher. She felt our troops were in harm’s way in Iraq for oil, and that we are without a sensible national energy policy.

She reminded participants that every ecosystem in the world is in decline, and our ability to survive as a species is at stake. We treat our ecosystems as though they have no value, yet they provide $30 trillion annually in services. Global warming is real and contributes to climate instability, placing human welfare at risk.

The recent hurricane, Katrina, which caused so much damage, illustrates her point.

The general scientific consensus on climate change and hurricanes predicts an increase in their intensity. Higher ocean surface temperatures and air temperatures are key factors producing more powerful, destructive hurricanes. While political pressures to rebuild areas will be intense, economy, environment and human welfare would be better served by reducing vulnerable coastal developments.

In response to climate change concerns an increasing number of firms are directing efforts at reducing their carbon footprint, or the amount of carbon dioxide they release producing goods and services. As scientists call for a global reduction of up to 80 percent in the amount of carbon released by 2050, some firms are finding carbon reduction a profitable venture. Lovins cited the financial gains that British Petroleum, DuPont and STM have experienced while cutting carbon releases. Additional financial opportunities selling green tags, trading carbon rights and sequestering carbon in farm fields were pointed out.

She reminded participants of the economic successes in the 1970s and early ’80s when we cut energy consumption 15 percent in six years while growing the economy 15 percent. Since we waste up to $300 billion annually on fossil fuels, an amount equal to the annual energy consumption of Japan, we are only scratching the surface of possible savings.

Communities spend up to 20 percent of their gross income buying energy; up to 80 percent of the amount leaves the community. Osage, Iowa, a town of 4,200 people, has been saving more than a million dollars annually on energy bills by investing in energy efficiency. By using efficient lighting and appliances and requiring new and remodeled homes to achieve high levels of energy savings, the community’s energy bills are half those of the state average.

The recent hurricane serves as a grim reminder of how vulnerable centralized, interdependent fuel and electrical energy systems are to disruptions. A few years ago, when the grid collapsed, customers were unable to purchase gas as pumps were inoperable. Today, with pumps ready to go, consumers are faced with limited gas supplies. The longer the supply lines and the more interconnected the electrical grid, the greater the local vulnerability to disruptions in supplies. Decentralized energy sources that power a home or business enhance local security, lessen vulnerability to supply disruptions and help stem the flow of energy dollars out of the community.

Liquid fuels remain a major energy challenge. More fuel-efficient vehicles are available to stretch existing supplies. Biodiesel can lessen our dependence on imported fuels. A sensible, effective strategy is to design urban communities so a car is no longer necessary. By locating schools, hospitals, government buildings and recreation and shopping facilities along major bus lines, sufficient passengers will support mass transit use. Improved bus loading facilities to both shelter passengers and allow for faster entry and exit from buses will make the services more appealing and functional.

Considering the extreme wastefulness of our energy practices and technological opportunities in efficiency and renewable energy systems, Lovins is convinced we can have a different world than we are creating. We know how to do it; we only must choose to do it.

From the Sept. 7-13, 2005, issue

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