‘Green’ electricity isn’t enough to turn the tide. All of us need to consume less energy, argues Dr Catherine Knight – and that means consuming less of everything.
We are all aware of the ambitious changes we need to make if we are to avert catastrophic and irreversible climate change. However, exactly what we need to do remains a confusing minefield which few of us have the time or energy to navigate.
Every day we hear of a new technology that promises to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or a space-based solar technology that will power millions of homes, or, conversely, we find out that what was touted as a solution yesterday is no longer one today.
But all this “complexity” is just a distraction from the simple reality that to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown we need to make fundamental changes to the way we live.
This reality could in fact not be any simpler. We need to radically reduce our consumption of resources.
Energy is a useful lens through which to look at this.
Let’s start with a bit of myth-busting. Myth 1: Here in Aotearoa we live in a land of plenitude, where everything is green, including our energy.
Yes, just over 80% of our electricity comes from renewable sources – one of the highest proportions in the world. (‘Renewable’ perhaps for a human – not so wholesome for a native fish trying to navigate through a dam to spawn.) However, this is only our electricity – 60% of our energy supply comes from oil, gas and coal, and when we look at total energy consumed by end users such as households and industry, only 28% comes from renewable energy sources.
And over recent decades we have become increasingly energy-hungry. Since the 1960s, our per-capita energy consumption has increased three-fold, as shown in this graph.
This is despite all the improvements in energy efficiency in our vehicles and appliances – counteracted by our having more of them and using them more often (as we are encouraged to do, in our consumption-oriented society). We have become “energy blind” – blind to the sheer magic of abundant (and, ecologically-speaking, cheap) energy at our fingertips, and blind to the damage that our ever-increasing consumption of energy and resources inflicts on the climate and to the biosphere.
And because energy, including electricity, is just regarded as another commodity (in the interests of corporations seeking to maximise profits), we are exhorted to use more of it, not less.
Which brings us to myth number 2: it is all under control because the transition to renewable energy is underway. Yes, year on year, the amount of solar and wind energy generation (and consumption) is growing in relation to itself. But in relation to overall global energy consumption, it remains just a tiny sliver. As of 2020, solar and wind energy combined made up only 1.6% of all energy consumed globally. This is because just as quickly as the renewable energy expands, our overall consumption of energy grows.
As the graph above so starkly shows, the transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources is not happening quickly enough to meet our climate goals.
Another not-so-minor issue is that renewables mainly create electricity. As a result, to complete our switch to renewable energy we will need to convert all our non-electrical infrastructure, machinery, industrial processes and more to run on electricity. No easy task.
But when the transition does happen, then we will be alright, surely? (Hello myth number 3.)
The answer is not quite, because of the issue of “net energy”, a measurement of how much energy it takes to create energy. When oil was at peak abundance, back in the 1930s, a staggering 100 units of energy was generated from every unit of energy to extract oil from the ground (100:1). As oil reserves have diminished and oil has become less easily accessible, the energy return on investment (EROI) has diminished to 30 or less. Renewable alternatives range from EROIs of a underwhelming 3:1 for biofuels through to about 30:1 for geothermal. As well as having lower EROIs, solar and wind suffer from intermittency, meaning that we cannot produce them all of the time.
The lower net energy return of renewable energy compared to traditional fossil fuels means that to produce enough energy to meet the needs of a growing global economy, our global energy sector will need to expand by a scale of hundreds. But this will likely be constrained by the availability of materials, such as rare earth metals required for solar panels. Not to mention land to put all those wind, solar farms or grow the crops for bio-fuels.
(The December 5 experiment at the National Ignition Facility in the US in which 1.5 times as much energy was generated by nuclear fusion compared to the energy used is a major breakthrough, but it could be decades before the technology is commercially viable, if ever.)
The elephant in the room is of course growth, and yet another myth: that to achieve human progress we need never-ending growth. But the wealthier nations, of which we are one, have long overshot the growth needed to improve wellbeing – and the evidence is mounting that continued growth is only harming our wellbeing, not improving it.
So, despite all the noise we are bombarded with, solving the climate and ecological crises could not in fact be any simpler – we need to consume less energy and resources and bring our economies back within planetary boundaries.
Other than leave our car in the garage and switch lights off when we are not using them, what can you and I do? Urge our government to implement policies that put human and ecological wellbeing at their centre, not growth. Putting strong incentives in place to drive energy conservation would be a good start.