To calculate how much energy could be saved through such improvements, Julian Allwood and colleagues at the University of Cambridge analysed the buildings, vehicles and industry around us and applied "best practice" efficiency changes to them.Here's the problem as I see it: cutting energy usage 73% would destroy the global economy. Let's start with 300 kilogram (660 pound) cars. Currently, the average vehicle on the road, somewhere on Earth, weighs around 2000 kg. Much of that weight is the steel reinforced-hull, the engine block and associated systems, the aluminum/plastic shell, and the electronics.
Changes to homes and buildings included triple-glazing windows and installing 300-millimetre-thick cavity wall insulation, using saucepan lids when cooking on the stove top, eliminating hot-water tanks and reducing the set temperature of washing machines and dishwashers. In transportation, the weight of cars was limited to 300 kilograms.
They found that 73 percent of global energy use could be saved by introducing such changes.
A 300 kg car is feasible, I should disclaim. Dangerous and probably a death-trap in a collision, but feasible. Volkswagen made one back in 2002.
In fact, the Volkswagen "1 Litre" provides a good example of what I am pushing towards. If you were to reduce by 85% the materials in a car, you almost certainly reduce by more than 85% the labor force required to build that car. First, as the VW shows, electronics have been essentially eliminated. There is no audio system in the car. There is no GPS unit. Air condition is gone. So is cruise control. All these systems require manufacturing facilities, and people to make them, and engineers to design new ones. Those jobs are gone.
The chassis and shell of a 300 kg vehicle are almost certainly not aluminum. The L1 uses a carbon fiber shell over magnesium frame. Let's ignore the fact that magnesium is almost impossible to extinguish when ignited (it is quite flammable) and instead point to the fact that aluminum car parts are a huge industry in many countries, both for the original frame and shell components as well as the replacement parts from cars that have collided. Bye bye to those jobs. Same goes for many aluminum mining operations and aluminum recycling operations.
The list goes on and on, really. But none of this matters, really, and I am surprised the Cambridge researchers included a 300 kg car in their study. In a green utopia world, people don't even drive cars. Mass transit goes everywhere. So instead of having to slice away 85% of the car manufacturing workforce, you slash it 100% and get a much greener world.
Capitalists will scream at me for saying this, and argue that jobs and industries come and go but capitalism lives on. Sure, that may be true...if you continuously increase both supply and demand. But any capitalist would also probably acknowledge that if you decrease demand by...say...73%, you're going to need to drastically reduce supply. Like in the housing industry in America the last 5 years. Demand dropped massively...and capitalism or no, a lot of people lost their jobs in order for the economy to cut supply.
So imagine, if you will, that the energy sector demand dropped 73%, because suddenly everyone grew a conscience and insulated the hell out of their houses. Suddenly, munipal power plants are shutting down, idled due to lack of need. All those employees are sent home. Trains, which are the prime movers of coal throughout the world, stop running, their engineers sent home. Manufacturing plants that build new train engines and cars are shuttered. Engineering companies that design new, powerful coal, nuclear, solar, and wind energy plants are laid off, as their services are no longer needed; less power plants are needed, not more. Miners worldwide are laid off, as coal is now super-abundant and plentiful in comparison to demand. Job losses, globally, would be staggering.
An environmentalist might sigh at me, just now, and suggest that these radical changes are absolutely necessary, though sad and harsh, if the world is to save itself. To which I can only reply "you are absolutely right, but these changes will not happen."
Large corporate and even industrial level contributions are made to politicians worldwide to maintain the status quo. Do you think the coal industry is interested in a cleaner world? Certainly. Just, not at the expense of the coal industry. Do you think powerful corporations, like Burns and McDonnell and Black and Veatch, are committed to providing energy-efficient technologies in their designs of power plants? Absolutely, but I highly doubt they'd be happy if their work was no longer needed.
No, the whole energy industry, which in combination with agriculture props up the global economy, is predicated on the fundamental principle that the world will always increase in total energy and food usage. This is really the bedrock of industrialization. Provide people with electricity, food, and an education, and watch them consume!
So no, I don't think cutting energy usage 73% worldwide is a "powerful" idea. And no, I don't think it will ever be adopted.
Most sustainable ideas follow this concept: "scientist show: less of X and the world will be Y percent better." These press releases are immediately followed by hard-working lobbyists from the companies that manufacture X making serious contributions to political campaigns, and that is followed by media-directed marginalization of the scientists or environmentalists that suggest that reduction of X will have tangible benefits to the Earth, and later, the makers of X will commit a trivial amount of revenue on an advertising campaign pretending to be Earth-conscious.
Now, such companies may seem greedy and evil for doing this, but deep down, there are probably people there who are just trying to save their employees' jobs. If someone came to my boss and said "we don't need engineers at this company anymore; we can do the same job cheaper and faster with technicians only" you better believe my boss would fight to save our jobs, even if it meant the company didn't become cheaper and faster. Is he wrong? That level of ethics will not be addressed in this post.
The point is, articles that suggest Earth's climate woes could potentially be solved in three easy steps if we all just joined hands and sang Kumbaya only serve as a way to entrench the cynicism of an entire score of people otherwise capable of enacting change. People who are smart enough to realize the utility of losing a hundred thousand jobs to keep the Earth alive eventually lose interest when the leadership of their nations make only a token effort to address what they consider the biggest threat to our species. "Job growth in the 2012 really doesn't matter, if the Earth will be uninhabitable in 2050," they mutter. People who aren't smart enough to realize the pressing need for radical, drastic, difficult changes to human society in order to save the Earth hear the doubt pedaled to them on TV by liars, and that doubt is enough to keep them disinterested.
Articles calculating how simple and easy it would be to replace all the Earth's Technology X with Greener Technology Y and everything would be great are no better. For example the myriad of articles suggesting that solar and/or wind power could provide humanity all the power it needs only serve as a way to make us feel ashamed and angry at ourselves, at which point we reject the seer advice and just continue, with a "well that's nice and all, you arrogant jerk, but I'm fine and dandy with the status quo" attitude. Not to mention, libertarians immediately pounce, suggesting anything that artificially steers the energy portfolio of America away from its own self-destructive cheapness is blasphemy. It's funny, politicians listen to libertarians with the selective hearing even a toddler could appreciate. Let's go back to the gold standard? You people are crazy! Let's not invest our futures in clean energy unless America magically does so through innovation? You people are SO SMART! Personally, I love the argument that the changing climate will lead to innovation that will make greener energy technologies feasible. This is like arguing that Kamikaze pilots were innovators.
Of course, that bogeyman, that terrifying spectre of job losses, is perhaps the greatest bit of razzle-dazzle in all of modern politics. Someone argues for adoption of a green technology? Well, that treehugger must have no idea what shape the economy is in. Someone wants to cut the Defense budget? That'll cost jobs, and you must hate America's troops! Raise taxes? It'll cost jobs, you socialist! More bailouts? Somehow they'll eventually cost jobs, debt-lover! Putting a lid on your sauce pan? That'll cost jobs too! Apparently putting a nation's people 100% to work is the primary goal of a government. Were that so, why not adopt the governmental structure of Vietnam, which features extremely low unemployment? Freedom of speech is a small price to pay if we all have jobs, right?!
But I massively digress. The point is, simple reductions in energy usage are incompatible with growing economies. And as long as the economy, and not the environment, is the prime mover in social policy, expect sustainability to continue to lose.