The Energy Throwaway Culture

February 9, 2016

Pope Francis calls us to leave behind the “throwaway culture” (LS #23) and to transition off of fossil fuels “without delay” (LS #165).  The “throwaway culture” applies to energy too; one of the ways we are going to get off of fossil fuels, as a society, will be increased energy efficiency.

That is why we at GCCM are working on developing a campaign about the “Energy Throwaway Culture”, to make the moral case of why it’s wrong to throwaway fossil fuel energy. Our everyday behaviors are exacerbating the injustice of climate disruption. When we miss to properly insulate our homes or parishes, to use efficient electric appliances (e.g. refridgerators) or to drive efficient vehicles, we are hurting the poorest among us who are in the frontlines of the climate crisis. (This is assuming that you don’t use renewable energy, which is the case for the huge majority of the world population).

Actually, it is crucial that we start working on this as soon as possible, given that targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport account for nearly half the emissions reduction needed by 2020, with the additional investment required being more than offset by reduced spending on fuel bills (IEA, 2013).

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As the Critical Pathways project found, necessary policies to implement or improve are: energy performance standards in buildings for lighting, new appliances, and for new heating and cooling equipment; in industry for motor systems; and, in transport for road vehicles. Around 60% of the global savings in emissions are from the buildings sector. Globally, measures in the transport sector represent over a third of the urban mitigation potential in the period to 2050.

The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2014 notes that “it is estimated that between 2015 and 2030, energy efficiency improvements worldwide could avoid at least 2.5–3.3 Gt CO2e annually. The International Energy Agency reports that end-use fuel and electricity efficiency could save 6.8 Gt CO2e, and power generation efficiency and fossil fuel switching could save another 0.3 Gt CO2e by 2030.”

Although energy efficiency measures often pay monetary dividends and is high on the list of mitigation potential, it is often ignored by campaigners and governments alike.  There are some encouraging new initiatives including this new initiative, a U.S. government, private sector and non-profit partnership.

The growing demand for energy means that we can only achieve 100% Renewable Energy with aggressive energy efficiency programs. The Global deep decarbonization pathways project provides detailed plans for many of large emitting countries that include energy efficiency pathways as the foundation of their plans.

Research from the New Climate Economy shows that raising energy efficiency standards in the G20 and around the world could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 6.9 Gt CO2e per year by 2030, more than the current annual emissions of the United States. These emissions reductions would be accompanied by economic savings in appliances, buildings, industry, and transport.

“Energy efficiency is an environmental and economic win-win and a clear leadership opportunity for the G20,” said former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. “In addition to being good for the environment, it is in the economic self-interest of consumers, businesses and governments, and should be the top of the agenda at the G20 meeting. What the G20 takes on today could be the global norm tomorrow.”

The report highlights IEA research which found that the global benefits of energy efficiency could be as much as US$18 trillion by 2035. Improving energy efficiency can free up resources for other, more productive investments, and can create up to three times as many jobs as fossil fuel supply investments per dollar invested.  Getting businesses to invest in energy efficiency can be complicated though, and has to do with also leaving “short-termism” and excessive focus on profits in the next quarter or two behind; currently our economic and corporate system are fully focused on the latter, to the extent that short-term profit for shareholders/company owners determines nearly everything.

Still, the effort goes on, to convince the business community that they should devote more attention in this area.  And there are more jobs available in an economy with a higher priority on efficiency as well.  However, full employment is also not a value in the current system, which brings us back to the Holy Father’s call for system change.  We also continue to emphasize the benefits and cost savings businesses themselves could achieve.

“Energy efficiency is a proven opportunity for businesses to gain a competitive advantage by unlocking energy savings,” said Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman & CEO of Schneider Electric and member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. “Yet as much as two-thirds of cost-effective energy efficiency potential could remain untapped by 2035 because of misaligned incentives and other market failures. Policies should be reformed to remove these barriers and facilitate energy efficiency deployment.”

“One of the best ways to overcome the barriers of misaligned incentives and other market failures is to set energy efficiency standards”, says New Climate Economy Program Director, Helen Mountford. “Standards provide certainty for manufacturers and consumers, encourage technological innovation, remove inefficient technologies from the market, and reduce transaction costs. That’s why the paper recommends that the G20 raise and align global standards, and establish a global platform for greater alignment and continuous improvement of standards.”

The paper finds that there are plenty of examples of energy efficiency initiatives that have worked in the past, including Japan’s “Top Runner Approach” for appliances. With this policy, for instance, the highest level of energy efficiency currently available (and sometimes an improvement on that level) for a particular product becomes the new standard in future years.

Benoît Lebot, Executive Director of International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC), the body that coordinates the implementation of the G20 Energy Efficiency Action Plan, said “IPEEC very much welcomes the New Climate Economy’s report. As ably shown by the NCE, standards are pragmatic and a proven way to maximize energy efficiency gains. Our world leaders need to know about this, and the G20 needs to act on it. The G20 is critical to energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is crucial for the G20.”

Russell Bishop, author of the report, adds: “Efficiency is an essential component of any strategy to deliver affordable energy and should be seen as the ‘first fuel.’ It can be especially beneficial for fast-growing economies trying to achieve universal energy access with limited resources.”