Do we need to keep increasing energy consumption?post by JamesOz · 2021-06-16T15:39:19.900Z · EA · GW · 5 comments
Epistemic Status: Unsure, I thought this article was interesting and wanted to start a discussion around it. I’ve spent less than 2 hours thinking or writing about this so I’m not firm in my views.
A lot of EA work on climate, namely by Founder’s Pledge, seems to be centred on the assumption that energy consumption will double up from 2020 to 2100, with a necessary increase of low-carbon energy production by a factor of 17 compared to 2020. The reasons being our increasing population and desire to lift billions out of energy poverty so in the future, 11 billion people can enjoy a reasonable standard of living. For these reasons, it makes sense for EA climate solutions to be focused on providing low-carbon forms of energy that will both provide abundant cheap energy to increase wellbeing but also not emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“We found that using 60% less energy than today, decent living standards could be provided to a global population of 10 billion by 2050. That’s 75% less energy than the world is currently forecast to consume by 2050 on our present trajectory – or as much energy as the world used in the 1960s.”
And their definition of decent living standards they’ve used can be seen here:
“There’d be adequately sized housing that maintains a comfortable temperature year-round, with clean, running hot water. A washing machine, fridge-freezer, laptops and smartphones in every home. Enough hospitals and schools to guarantee universal access, and three times as much public transport per person as is currently provided in the world’s wealthier countries.”
Which in my opinion, seems fairly reasonable. Where it gets more divisive is along the following lines:
"There’s no longer room for second homes, second cars, 20 minute power showers in the second bathroom, biannual upgrades of electronic gadgets, new shoes for every season, or plates piled high with red meat seven nights a week."
Given this fairly recent (Nov 2020) research, it makes me think if we need to question our assumption of doubling energy consumption by 2100. Up until now, EA climate work has predominantly been focused on the supply-side of the issue e.g. increasing the supply of low-carbon energy sources via tax credits, R&D budgets and so on. There has been little on the demand-side of things as suggested by the article above e.g. advocating for a simpler lifestyle for wealthier countries which could actually dramatically lower our future energy consumption and hence reduce the scale of decarbonisation we need to undergo. Other benefits of a low-energy lifestyle would be apparent in less resource depletion and environmental degradation. In the scenario where we double energy consumption by 2100 using low-carbon energy, this would still involve massive amounts of lithium, cobalt and other rare mineral extraction and other forms of environmental degradation which in turn could lead to other environmental or socio-political issues.
In short, I see a few clear benefits of reducing societal energy consumption:
- It will reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Obviously great if we want to reduce both near-term and long-term consequences to human and non-human life.
- It will reduce the scale of decarbonisation we need to deploy and clean-tech that we have to develop via R&D. If we used 60% less energy than today in 2100, we would only need to scale up our low-carbon energy production by approx 3.5x (from 17,500TWh to 64,000TWh) instead of 17x from 17.5TWh up to 308,000TWh. This would significantly reduce the amount of innovation required in yet unproven (at scale) technologies e.g. carbon removal.
- It will reduce the significance of other potentially dangerous environmental/political consequences, such as resource depletion.
At first thought, there seems to be a few issues that might arise to make this kind of low-energy society advocacy intractable, namely:
- It’s politically unappealing. From my own experience, I’m fairly sure no one in the UK will want to be told to not have a second home, not to buy new clothes regularly, etc. This makes me think it could be politically very challenging to get any country or group of citizens to agree to this on a large scale.
- How would you enforce such a lifestyle without an authoritarian state that hands out rations of phones, clothes and cars?
To clarify, I'm not talking about recommending individuals prioritise lifestyle changes over other forms of climate advocacy or donating, as argued by this great report by Founder's Pledge. Instead I'm referring to advocacy, lobbying or systemic changes that would lead to societally lower demands for energy, rather than individuals switching off extra light-bulbs.
Generally, I’m curious to hear what others think about two issues, which are slightly distinct:
- Should we be focusing on low-energy lifestyle advocacy within EA Climate work to reduce the colossal decarbonisation challenge?
- More broadly, do we think increasing energy consumption indefinitely will be detrimental to humanity (on any timescale) due to other environmental concerns such as resource depletion or will the benefits outweigh the risks?
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