Is there any point in saving energy?

There are plenty of legal, ethical and economic reasons for wanting to minimise damage to the environment, and global warming is often near the top of people’s priorities. Most advice given to organisations and individuals starts from the premise that the best thing they can do to minimise global warming is to save energy. However, it is worth subjecting this notion to a little scrutiny. (I am not discussing, by the way, whether or not anthropogenic global warming is happening; that is an argument for another place. )

No this is not about that. It is about a distinction pointed out by Bill St. Arnaud in recent blog postings. As Bill points out, “The real problem facing the planet is not energy consumption but GHG emissions”.  He contends that as energy-using devices become more efficient,  more energy is used. He concludes that “Energy reduction or efficiency in many situations can be counter productive and actually increase GHG emissions”.

I seriously doubt this argument. Clearly, ever since electricity has been discovered and exploited, and ever since the invention of the internal combustion, machines which convert energy to a useful form have become more efficient. With lighting we have seen the sequence from tungsten filament, through fluorescent tube and on to light-emitting diodes. More efficient technologies yet may be just around the corner. Likewise, in the motor industry, fuel usage efficiency has improved rapidly. At the same time, energy usage has increased greatly. This is not surprising, since economic growth practically everywhere, coupled with population growth on an unprecedented scale, means that there is greater demand for energy. These changes may be inextricably linked by increased research and economic activity, but that does not make them causally interdependent. I would contend that these phenomena correlate simply because they taken place simultaneously. Statistically it would be very hard to uncouple these causalities. Attempts to use the Jevons paradox to fit  the data to economic models involving ‘perfect markets’ make too many assumptions, in my view.

The subject is rife with uncertainties. I don’t find this a problem, however, since I think that the precautionary principle should be invoked here. A presumption of causality would lead us to conclude that we don’t need to constrain energy consumption. However, this carries a risk. What if, as common sense might suggest, using more energy damages the environment by releasing additional CO2? Would it not be better to minimise this risk? While there is doubt about causality, it is less risky to assume there is no causality here. This leaves us free to employ two separate strategies; to generate electricity in a more sustainable way, and also to limit the amount we consume. These are not mutually inconsistent, and I see no good reason not to do both. Indeed, in the current economic climate, it would be irresponsible use of public funds for organisations to fail to save energy. 

In line with the work of both the JISC and the EAUC in this area, I will continue to work to persuade organisations to strive to minimise their energy use. 


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