Why can’t we simply reduce the amount of energy we consume by improving energy efficiency?
Energy efficiency allows us to be more productive with each unit of energy we use. But as we are able to do more with any given unit of energy, the product of that energy becomes less expensive and that in turn allows and encourages us to use more of it. Efficiency is a key component in curbing the growth of energy demand, but it has never been shown to actually reduce energy demand overall, a phenomenon that has only happened in times of economic recession.
While much of the developed world is undoubtedly wasteful in its use of energy, most of the world actually doesn’t have enough energy. Developing countries need increasing levels of energy in order to improve the health, well-being, education and living standards of their people. Economic development and its accompanying rise in energy consumption are improving people’s lives; it’s a trend we should welcome with one notable exception: the accompanying increase in CO2 emissions.
It is estimated that global energy demand will grow by more than one-third over the period to 2035 . Almost all of that growth will take place in the developing world. If we’re to meet this daunting challenge without sending the climate into tailspin it will require a massive deployment of every non-CO2 emitting energy technology we know of, including nuclear.
Another factor that is likely to increase the world’s demand for energy in the coming decades is the need to desalinate seawater. We are rapidly depleting fresh water supplies all over the world with potentially catastrophic impacts on social cohesion and agricultural production. The most readily available solution to this is desalination, a process requiring vast amounts of electrical energy.
For all these reasons, it is unrealistic to imagine that overall energy demand can be reduced within the timeframe in which we need to tackle climate change.