A newspaper story I once read (almost certainly apocryphal) claimed that advertisement to this effect asked for a small payment in return for a guaranteed method of cutting energy bills in half. If you paid up, you received, by return mail, a pair of scissors.
A more serious version of this question occurred to me in relation to yet another dispute about the allegedly special character of energy as a commodity. It occurred to me to ask the following question: suppose that my family and I had to reduce my personal energy consumption, immediately and permanently by 50 per cent. How feasible would it be, and how much worse off would we be? So, assuming we attempted it evenly across the board, this would mean
* Reducing car travel by 50 per cent, until we could get a more fuel-efficient car, or share rides
* Reducing lighting by 50 per cent, until we could get more energy-efficient lightbulbs
* Reducing air travel by 50 per cent, until airlines introduced more fuel-efficient planes
* Reducing use of airconditioning and central heating by 50 per cent, either by turning it off half the time or by adjusting thermostats
* Reducing use of existing consumer durables and purchase of new ones by 50 per cent, until substitutes with less lifecycle energy use became available
To make it a bit tougher, we might try to achieve bigger reductions in these areas, to offset various forms of indirect energy use, such as the energy used in food production.
My assessment is that this would be very difficult. But do some comparisons, and it looks easy.
Suppose we tried the same thing with other goods and services. As residents of Brisbane, we had to do this with water during the drought. Brisbane residents reduced consumption by around 50 per cent with stringent restrictions. Most notably, watering of gardens had to done with buckets, in a window of a few hours per week. Given the experience, I’d say that was harder than any one of the cuts listed above, and probably harder than two or three of them put together. And, unlike the energy case, where you could gradually substitute more efficient optins, saving water didn’t get easier over time. Fortunately, at the time, we could cut water use in half by economising in the garden. Now that we live in an apartment, the only place to cut water use significantly would be the shower, which would be a real stinker (sic).
But mention of the apartment brings me on to housing. The analogous requirement would be that we should share with another family until we could move somewhere half the size. I’ve got no hesitation in saying that I’d rather make all the energy-related cuts listed above than do this.
Even worse, how about food, healthcare and education? Reducing these by 50 per cent would be unimaginable, even if you treated meat and other animal foods as embodying the associated grain inputs. Think about doubling class sizes, or halving the school year and compare this to the minor inconveniences described in relation to energy.
To sum up, while energy is an important aspect of most things we do in a modern economy, it’s far from being the most important. The idea that energy is special, and that energy use cannot be reduced without a drastic reduction in living standards is an error, and one that is crippling our capacity to respond to the problem of climate change.
fn1 It’s also worth remembering that energy per se isn’t a problem, it’s C02 emissions. So, given a few years to adjust, we could install solar panels, buy green energy and so on. Renewable energy is not a complete solution, but it can make a big contribution