Energy Efficiency and Climate Change

In my posting last week I talked about the climate action paradigms that exist. This followed on from a business association meeting where it was clear that there were two very different schools of thought on the issue of reducing emissions. One is to focus on energy efficiency and renewables and attempt to race fossil fuels out of the market. This felt to me as rather wishful thinking, given both the scale of the existing industry and its competitiveness. The other is to recoginise the reality of the fossil fuel industry and begin to impose an increasingly stringent requirement on it to manage (i.e. capture and store) emissions, ideally through a carbon price. This would then draw in energy alternatives and accelerate improvements in energy efficiency.

I can certainly understand those who take the view that the promotion of renewable energy is a must. While I don’t agree that it will significantly (if at all) drive down global fossil fuel consumption (and therefore emissions) in the short to medium term, it is nevertheless clear that this energy is essential to help bolster overall global supply and therefore meet development needs.

But some seem to take the view that energy efficiency itself is a viable emissions reduction strategy and therefore interchangeable with technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). I saw an example of this at another industry group meeting very recently. In a discussion about energy efficiency a guest speaker talked about the closure of older less efficient power stations in China. A slide was put up which claimed emission reductions in China of 100 million tonnes as a result. Of course China’s emissions haven’t reduced at all and I doubt very much that even one gram less of coal is being burned as a result of these closures. The likely reality is that the same coal is being used more efficiently in newer power stations to generate even more electricity. Nor is the move likely to result in a long term emissions reduction as the coal system in China (mines, railroads, import terminals etc.) is pretty much at maximum capacity all the time, so there is a huge incentive to make better use of the available coal. At least for a Chinese power generator, waiting for more coal supply may not be the favoured route for generating more electricity. 

This is not unlike government attempts to cut deficits. Many countries have seen deficits rise constantly in absolute terms since the idea of deficit spending was first introduced. Yet successive governments have all implemented efficiency drives to “reduce the deficit” and claimed some success. The problem is that the reductions are more often than not against projected spending rather than current spending, so a reduction can be claimed at the same time as the reality of an absolute increase in spending. As such, the total deficit continues to rise. Real deficit reduction will probably only come with major structural changes in government policy (e.g. welfare, defense etc.), but these are much more difficult to implement. At least with government spending there is a relief valve of sorts in that the economy can grow and therefore the cumulative deficit can shrink as a fraction of GDP. Unfortunately this isn’t the case with the atmosphere.

The IEA did a bit of this in their recent report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. They projected a particular “business as usual” emissions by 2020 and then illustrated how a focus on energy efficiency could reduce this. Nevertheless emissions continue to rise, but the chart seemingly shows energy efficiency as the most important contributing factor to change. The question that really needs to be asked is “Which fossil fuel production actually declined or new project shelved because of this?”. Only then are cumulative emissions potentially impacted. A further perverse outcome is that when viewed in such a short timeframe, when technologies like CCS can make almost no difference because of the implementation time lag, some observers leave with the message that energy efficiency is the major contributor to tackling global emissions.

 IEA Energy Efficiency


One unintended consequence of energy efficiency policy can be to exacerbate the emissions problem. A colleague of mine produced an analysis of this about a year ago and I wrote about it in a post at that time. In the worst case, an energy efficiency improvement in the power generation supply chain can actually incentivize the resource holder (e.g. coal mine) to expand the resource base and therefore the potential tonnes of carbon that will ultimately be released into the atmosphere. This won’t always be so, but it’s an interesting take on the issue.

Energy efficiency is a key driver for development, primarily through the reduction in cost of energy services. This increases access and availability of energy and therefore spurs development. Arguably it has been the single most important element of the industrial revolution, underpinned of course by key inventions along the way. But we now seem to have got it into our heads that this is also a critical part of the solution set for climate change, when it may not be at all.