- My last blog was Solar Power for the People (Renewable energy supply increased)
- This blog addresses the other side of the equation: Rationing (energy demand decreased)
Why have we failed to do the obvious?
We have failed in our main task to cut energy use to meet renewables. Instead, as renewables have increased, so energy demand has also increased. This means we continue to burn fossil fuel to fill that gap.
In this blog, I set out why I believe we have failed to cut energy demand. And how rationing might be the only rational and realistic pathway to keeping under 1.5C global warming.
Why has energy use continually risen, even as energy efficiency is applied?
Jevons Paradox is the phenomenon of making something more efficient and then using more of it. In economics, the Jevons Paradox occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand.
This rebound effect of efficiency must be acknowledged and value must be put on all energy use, regardless of efficiency.
Contrary to common intuition, technological progress cannot be relied upon to reduce energy consumption. And can actually have the opposite effect.
Messed up priorities
Renewable energy from Government funded wind farms in Scandinavia is being sold off to Tech giants like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google, when resident heating has yet to be electrified.
Although it aims to phase them out by 2030, Denmark in fact retains three coal-fired power stations, which growing energy demand will make it harder to dispense with. Just as the country has succeeded in reducing its emissions, it now looks set to push them up again.’
Redirection of publicly funded renewables to profligate corporations, shows a disregard for a hierarchy of renewable energy for the common good.
We must decide what is essential and what is not. And prioritise accordingly. Essential heating must be very high on the hierarchy
Many consumers falsely believe that electricity is ‘clean’. And in abundant supply.
This misunderstanding has been fostered by corporations who refer to products such as electric cars as ‘zero emission’. The reality is that electricity used to fuel the electric vehicle is often partly or majority coal and gas generated. The Advertising Standards Agency has ruled against claims of ‘zero emission’, However misselling continues and Electric vehicles are still promoted as ‘clean’.
Car makers are also very shy about revealing the embedded carbon emitted in the manufacture of cars. This is usually between 6-40 tons of upfront carbon for cars, depending on size, weight and other attributes. The calculation will include the extraction of raw materials, as well as the energy mix used to transport and to manufacture the components. It is a complicated calculation. But it needs to come as standard to inform consumers on all consumables, including cars.
Poor understanding of the electric grid mix leads to profligate use of ‘free energy’. There is no such thing as ‘free energy’. Even renewables have an embedded carbon footprint.
We must learn to value all energy use. And become more aware of the embedded carbon in products and services
Cooking the books – carbon accounting ‘omissions’
But the United Nations Climate Change (UNFCCC) measures emissions according to production, rather than consumption. Consequently, embedded emissions on imported goods are attributed to the exporting, rather than the importing, country. This essentially means that embedded carbon emissions are being ‘outsourced’ by rich countries to rising economies or developing countries.
Outsourcing of emissions comes in the form of electronic devices such as smartphones, cars, cheap clothes and other goods manufactured in China and other rising economies but consumed in the US and Europe. Aviation, shipping and data are also often outsourced.
Datacentre web servers, such as those used by Google and Facebook are to blame for 2% of greenhouse gas emissions (about the same as air travel). A recent Freedom of Information request to Transport for London, showed that TFL have no idea how much energy is used in outsourced data centres (for transportation and services). They cannot therefore account for outsourced data energy use. This is also the case for Government, Commercial and individual users of data. We must have clear and accessible way of accounting for this energy use.
Although the UK has met its Kyoto obligations, this has been achieved largely by outsourcing production and relying on importing consumer products from abroad to meet growing consumer demand. As UK consumer demand has continued to grow, so have the GHG emissions embedded in imported goods.
We must fully acknowledge, own and take responsibility for our consumer carbon footprint
How many private jets does it take to talk about climate change?
‘The last 25 years has seen more carbon emitted than in all of the rest of time’ – Alice Bell
Please pause and take a minute to absorb that information. Despite the yearly United Nations Climate Change Conferences (begun in 1995) we have knowingly emitted more greenhouse emissions in those last 25 years, than in all of the rest of time.
The ‘glitterati’ of Climate Change jet from conference to conference, fuelled by fossil fuels.
Lobbying by wealthy corporations and individuals has created a convoluted, ineffective and incoherent climate strategy.
Consume less or perish
Professor Kevin Anderson says: ‘Like it or not, climate mitigation is ultimately a rationing issue.’
We need to quickly consume less or perish. Consuming less is an easy win and has majority support from the people. Consuming less can be done relatively quickly by those who consume beyond their actual need.
We must recognise mistakes and move on:
- Transition technology like diesel, hybrid, gas boilers, biomass, biodiesel (palm oil) has been a strategic failure.
- Outsourcing of emissions is confusing and not owning our true carbon footprint
- Innovation can be a scam (we must scrutinise more carefully and be aware of vested interests)
- Data processing and storage is an ‘invisible’ energy use
- Embedded carbon in raw material extraction, manufacture and transportation is often overlooked
- Energy efficiency does not necessarily translate into energy demand reduction
- We must establish a hierarchy of energy use for the common good (where essential heating and cooking come higher in priority than cars, data proliferation and unneccessary luxury imported goods)
- We need a ‘Hut 11’ to quickly crack decarbonisation of heating, and energy storage
Carbon cold turkey
Hazel Healy sketches out a radical scenario of carbon cold-turkey and suggests that:
‘Perhaps a more vertiginous transition would help focus the mind of world leaders: what if we aimed to cut absolute carbon emissions to zero by 2025? There are only two ways to go about this: ramping up clean energy generation via renewable power, while simultaneously massively reducing the energy we use. And as extreme as carbon cold-turkey may sound, it beats our current trajectory to a 3-4 degree Celsius planet.’
This seems to align more closely to the IPCC report on ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions’ than the current ‘market forces’ approach.
BBC research has shown that the word frugality (characterised by or reflecting economy in the use of resources) is acceptable across a range of ages and across the political spectrum. Going mainstream is important, so let’s use the word frugality.
The word Frugal has the root ‘fruit’, ‘value’ and even ‘enjoy’. How do we restore ‘value’ in a world where reckless over-consumption has become an accepted and even desirable lifestyle choice?
Frugality seems to be capturing the public mood; a recent poll by YouGov shows a majority public support for a reduction in consumption in combatting climate change
So what does frugality look like?
Many indigenous people still live in alignment with the earth. But I believe there is an untapped desire to live more sustainably, even amongst city dwellers, if systems enable this transition:
- 3-4 day working week
- Inclusive Protected Cycle lanes and Cycle Only Streets
- Quality Public Realm
- Walking networks
- Resident allotment permits (rather than resident parking permits)
- Communal gardens
- Communal composts
- Circular economy
- Public Transport
- Community food growing
- Residential Street Broderies (car boot without the car)
- Communal Solar
- National Park City / biodiversity
- No more hoarding of wealth and goods
- Steady State economy
- Locally based labour intensive services like therapy, massage, music, poetry, storytelling, dance and art classes
- Empower women to depopulate
- Universal Basic Services
- Universal basic income
Rationing Versus Carbon Price
David Wallace-Wells has interpreted the IPCC report as setting carbon as high as $5,500 per ton, to stabilise the climate below two degrees. Professor Julia Steinberger has said ‘carbon pricing of £2,000 per ton of carbon would ground flights’. Unless carbon is priced at these levels, I cannot see this pathway working.
‘Based on data available for this special report, the price of carbon varies substantially across models and 40 scenarios, and their value increase with mitigation efforts.’ (Page 78 IPPC report)
I understand the scientific basis of these calculations. But this is too vague and complex for rapid policy intervention in a Climate Emergency.
I start from the premise that we have NO carbon budget. We are in damage limitation mode. Carbon Pricing at the lower IPCC estimate of $135 would be a licence to fry the planet. Rationing is far more equitable. And in line with the Precautionary Principle.
What is sustainable consumption?
Who is consuming what?
it is the wealthiest 10% who are consuming 50% of greenhouse emissions, whilst the poorest half of the global population account for only 10% of yearly global greenhouse emissions. In the UK, per capita emissions of the wealthiest 10% are up to five times higher than the those in the bottom half of income.
‘Carbon inequality means we can’t [practically] squeeze carbon emissions out of those who don’t emit’ says Alice Bell. The lower income 50% could not offer up much in reductions in greenhouse emissions, because their consumption is already in shortfall. But the wealthy have plenty of extra flab to lose. And slimming would help bring value, fruit and even restore enjoyment lost to meaningless over-consumption.
Professor Kevin Anderson believes if the global wealthy 10% cut their annual carbon emissions down to the average EU citizen 8 tons of carbon, we would cut global carbon emissions by a third.
What are the big-ticket items?
- Large homes and
- Large cars
- Multiple flights and car journeys to access
- More than one home
- Jet set lifestyle and
- Imported luxury consumables
Equality of sacrifice
When David Milliband was Environment Secretary, he said
“imagine a country where carbon becomes a new currency. We carry bank cards that store both pounds and carbon points. When we buy electricity, gas and fuel, we use our carbon points as well as pounds.”
The government would give everybody the same free points. Those who didn’t need them all, including the poor people who don’t drive or fly, could sell their surplus to people who wanted to run an SUV or jet to Spain every weekend.
The WW2 government considered such tradeable rations but ruled them out because they feared they would “undermine the moral basis of rationing: equality of sacrifice”
Stealing our children’s future
Last week, I looked into the eye of Climate Breakdown and Ecological collapse. I attended the Youth Climate Strike in Parliament Square .
It was overwhelming to look into the children’s eyes and see their fear and anger about their future being ripped away by greed and lack of coherent climate action.