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Demanding less: why we need a new politics of energy (report excerpt)

From the 36-page online report available for download. Includes footnotes.

Table of Contents
Why do we need so much energy?
The supply obsession
The cracks appear
Shaping a low energy society

For generations, human development has been fuelled by ever greater amounts of energy. The discovery of fire by our earliest ancestors allowed them to harness the energy stored in plants to keep warm and to cook. Agriculture is essentially a means of diverting sunlight into crops to provide easily accessible food. Farming liberated people from the daily hunt for sustenance, and allowed populations to grow. Exploitation of coal fuelled the industrial revolution and the development of urban societies. Oil for transport, and the development of electricity systems enabled modern society, with its ever increasing consumption and mobility. Energy use and social progress have been inextricably linked. Until now. Now, it makes sense to use less energy, not more.

The unintended consequences of increasing energy use in the developed world now outweigh the benefits. Climate change is, of course, first on the list of unintended consequences. The carbon released by burning fossil fuels is changing the climate with serious risks for some of the earth’s systems. But there are other consequences too. As we use up the easily available stores of fossil fuels, we start to exploit insecure and hard to reach supplies, at massively increased economic and ecological cost. Our dependence on oil-rich states constrains the extent and consistency of the west’s support for democracy and human rights in the Middle East. As developing countries increase their energy use, it is up to the developed world to allow them the resources they need. At home there are social consequences of being oil-dependent, from the social fragmentation brought about by suburban living, to the health problems associated with sedentary lifestyles.

Governments know that the era of cheap, plentiful energy is over. That’s why energy policy in the UK is gradually being refocused around the goals of energy security and carbon reduction. But politicians have yet to grapple with the fundamental question: how to break the habit of generations, and use less energy, not more.

So, for the moment, we have an unsatisfactory compromise: government acknowledges the problems of climate change and energy security, but asserts that there is a known, manageable, technologically driven way through. From left to right, all politicians maintain that plans to increase the use of renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and nuclear power, combined with more efficient use of energy, will carry us through. The reality suggests otherwise.

Here, we describe the contradiction between current trends and future goals that politicians are, as yet, unable to confront. We start by looking at what we actually use energy for. How much of what we call progress, from modern agriculture to warm buildings and mobility, is dependent on abundant energy? We then examine the current politics of energy, particularly the myth that we can easily replace fossil fuels with low carbon alternatives.

In the face of all this evidence, we present the overwhelming case for rebalancing our energy system, to focus as much on demand reduction as supply.

We look at what would actually happen if we got serious about reducing energy demand. What would it mean for how we live, where we live, how we get around and what we eat? And finally, we suggest how to begin: what steps, from the rhetorical to the practical, would help us to move toward a more honest and workable politics of energy?...

To improve the social and environmental impacts of energy generation we have to address energy demand. We can’t tackle climate change and energy security without reversing our growing use of energy. For two hundred years, economic growth has been enabled by access to cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Change this variable, and the economy itself changes, and society with it. Outcomes may not be worse, but they will be different. As the politics of power moves to centre stage, the role of energy as a driver of social and economic progress will be better understood, and greater understanding may well lead to better decisions about how to shape our society.

“We need a new approach to thinking about energy, one that starts from how and why energy is used rather than assuming that progress is intrinsically linked forever to rising energy demand.”

We need a new approach to thinking about energy, one that starts from how and why energy is used rather than assuming that progress is intrinsically linked forever to rising energy demand. Economic change, social change and behavioural change can all affect energy demand in either direction, and policy can have an impact on all of these. Energy policy based largely on energy supply is not only inadequate, it is misleading and potentially damaging. An extension of energy policy to energy demand is critical and, whatever the rhetoric about energy efficiency, the current approach does not provide this. Energy demand should be considered broadly, the real drivers need to be addressed, not just in policies for buildings, industry and transport but also in those usually considered for food, planning and trade.

For a number of years, the UK has had an apparent cross-party consensus on climate policy. This consensus is looking more fragile, and may not survive the impacts of recession and budget reduction. Even if it can, it is not helpful if it continues to reinforce the myth that all that is needed is to plug in new forms of power generation. Climate change is driven by energy use and energy use affects all aspects of modern life. Energy affects people unevenly, poor people more than rich, rural dwellers more than urban, industrial companies more than services. So a more holistic energy policy should be the stuff of politics.

The small number of incumbent companies that dominate the energy sector today, and help define the inadequate scope of current energy policy, do not provide a power structure that is immutable or inevitable. Energy history has not ended.

So, whilst we welcome a broad acceptance of climate policy objectives, energy policy as the means of delivering them should be expected to be contested, political and controversial. We need to put as much emphasis on energy demand reduction as supply substitution, and rebalance policy to develop a new politics of energy demand reduction.

Related: From a Guardian article also written by Rebecca Willis:

Energy debate must consider demand - not just supply

...And yet, despite all the worries about climate change and energy security, there is a fundamental question that we rarely ask: why do we need so much energy to power our lives?

Debates about energy focus overwhelmingly on energy supply. Should we go for renewables, nuclear or both? Will carbon capture and storage work? What happens if Russia cuts off supplies of gas? These questions are generally asked, and answered, by a small group of technical specialists in business and government – the kinds of people who can talk with enthusiasm about electricity market reform and renewables obligation certificates.

Sure, in recent years, there has been a very welcome focus on energy efficiency, for buildings and transport in particular. But the basic assumption is this: we can increase efficiency, and substitute high-carbon for low-carbon energy, and our lives will stay pretty much the same as they are now.

This is just not true. There are models – commissioned by everyone from government to Greenpeace – which map how we can decarbonise our energy supply. But all these models make massive assumptions about what is possible. They assume eye-watering amounts of investment, bold government policy, optimistic build rates for new technology, a supportive public and a good dose of luck. The reports are filled with caveats explaining the obstacles: the message is "it's extremely difficult, but it might just be possible". Yet politicians ignore the warnings and translate all the caveats, risks and assumptions into a much simpler, politics-free story about the path to a low-carbon future.

And because of the breathless enthusiasm for low-carbon supply, much less thought is given to the demand side. But a reduction in overall demand for energy could be cheaper, and comparatively easier, though by no means easy, to bring about.

So what would actually happen if we got serious about reducing energy demand?...

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