The efficiency enigma

Energy efficiency is an ongoing challenge in an economy such as ours, which stimulates insatiable human wants. Ironically, if we become more efficient, more money will be available to make other purchases, which can result in greater fossil fuel consumption and increased climate change.

Being a society that consumes about twice as much as other modern economies, our wastefulness presents many opportunities to conserve energy. For example, dramatic cuts in heating costs are possible. Some people set their house temperature at 55° F. after checking the location of water pipes to determine they are not in danger of freezing. Some insulate one room and use an electric heater while they are in it. For special occasions, they might turn up the thermostat an hour before guests arrive.

Sometimes, people lack the information and capital needed to cut energy consumption. At other times, comfort and convenience override efficiency concerns. For years, consumers ignored efficiency and bought large cars, homes and appliances out of a sense of entitlement.

As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute points out, even when corporations develop an environmental ethic as Walmart recently did by providing organic foods, installing solar and wind generators, buying more fuel-efficient trucks and pressuring its suppliers to engage in green business practices, the result may not be as beneficial as originally envisioned. Since these practices enhance the firm’s image and its profits, what is done with the profits is critical. Will saved dollars be invested in more and larger box stores, stimulating more consumers to drive greater distances to buy more goods? Will stockholders get larger dividends and buy more goods and services involving fossil fuel consumption?

While making dramatic gains in energy efficiency is laudable, this does not guarantee our economy will reduce its carbon emissions. As long as economic growth remains an end in itself, sustainable living will prove an elusive goal.

Reducing emissions from our automobiles provides a good example of what can happen. While cars became cleaner, more people drove, and many drove more miles, increasing carbon releases. With increased traffic, congestion increased, as did the need for road expansion and repairs. Without emission controls, air pollution levels would be worse than they are now. But the technological fix of emission controls failed to address the underlying problem of designing our communities around auto transportation and ignoring other options.

So efficiency alone, while very important, will not stop carbon emissions unless another mechanism is in place to limit fossil fuel consumption. Jackson favors limiting the amount of carbon that can be released to the atmosphere. For example, not only would a factory have limits on the amount of carbon it can release, but carbon limits would also exist on all components used in making a product and marketing it.

Jackson’s intent is not to discourage people from working toward a sustainable future, but to call attention to the complexity involved in addressing global climate change. As society attempts to face the conflicting challenges of meeting our energy needs and curtailing our release of carbon to the atmosphere, the consequences of our choices will have long-term impacts on humanity and the planet. Our decisions must be well thought out if we are committed to building a sustainable future.

From the Dec. 20-26, 2006, issue

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