Global demand for energy will increase by almost 50% by the year 2040. Some of that demand is expected to be met by renewables, but a greater portion is likely to come from fossil fuels; oil, coal, and natural gas. Most of this growth in energy demand will be led by the developing world, where over a billion people still don’t have access to electricity.
Can global energy consumption be reduced? Or, if that is impractical, could the increase in demand at least be slowed? Could increased energy efficiency and smart technology (as well as switching to cleaner sources of energy, such as renewables) help to drive down the world’s energy bill?
We had a comment sent in from Fiona, who believes that people need to change their lifestyles to live more sustainably – which means consuming less of everything (including less energy). If she’s right, then people will have to live simpler lives, scaling back their expectations of everything from transportation to the kind of goods they consume.
Is such a dramatic change in lifestyles the only way to cut energy consumption to sustainable levels? To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Hugo-Maria Schally, Head of Unit of DG Environment (Eco-Innovation & Circular Economy) at the European Commission. How would he respond?
I think that the challenge is to give people a lifestyle that makes them feel comfortable, and that means they need to be able to keep some of the functionalities that they currently have. They need to be offered a choice of a range of products and services that allows them to consume less energy whilst still having access to the functionalities and amenities that they want to in their current lifestyle. I don’t think people across Europe are ready, in the majority, for a radical change in lifestyle.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Verena Brennan, Energy Awareness Manager at Codema, an agency set up by Dublin City Council in 1997 to help the Irish capital meet its energy efficiency targets. What would she say?
I suppose it depends on the lifestyle. Living sustainably incorporates all aspects of life – from making sustainable food choices, reducing your carbon footprint by using zero-carbon transport modes to reducing your energy consumption at home. If someone travels to work by car every day, they can reduce their carbon footprint by switching to an electric or hybrid car. However if they want to make a real difference, they should switch to public transport or cycling. This might seem like a simple change to us but could be considered quite a lifestyle change to that person as the majority of his time was previously spent in a car.
When it comes to energy, I don’t think that it takes major lifestyle changes to use less energy. Simple changes in your daily habits can already help you save. By running your dishwasher and washing machine on lower temperatures or eco-mode, a lot of energy can be saved. Equally an adjustment to your room thermostat can achieve big energy savings as we use over 60% of energy at home on heating. Rather than wearing a t-shirt in a home that is heated to 22°C, we can put on a cardigan or jumper and reduce the temperature to 20°C. I would not consider this a big lifestyle change but rather small changes in habits.
Next up, we had a comment from Enrique, who suggested that a range of new technologies that improve energy efficiency could be the secret to getting people to use less energy (potentially without having such a dramatic impact on lifestyles). Does Hugo-Maria Schally agree?
Yes, innovation and technology is key to making a transition to more sustainable lifestyles. But we have to be careful, because what can be beneficial in the context of energy efficiency, such as the use of composite and lightweight materials, can actually create a lot of problems with regard to recyclability and waste.
Finally, we had a critical comment from Philippa. She believes that “accessing cheap reliable energy is crucial to living in the Industrial and Technological Age that has lifted billions of people out of poverty, improved health and enabled billions of people to thrive… The idea of encouraging people to use less energy is barbaric when in reality more energy needs to be produced to enable 2 billion people who live without electricity.”
In other words, Philippa believes we shouldn’t be trying to cut energy consumption, but rather boost it across the world. What would Hugo-Maria Schally say to that?
I would say it depends on what kind of energy we’re talking about. Yes, we need more energy produced from renewables. We need more solar energy, more wind energy, more geo-thermal energy. I think it’s wrong to continue to ask for more energy from traditional sources such as fossil sources. Because that will not create prosperity and well-being for people worldwide, given the link to climate change, resource depletion, and other forms of environmental harm that is going to be done. So, I think the answer to her question is: ‘Yes and no’. Yes, we actually need energy to go to a decarbonised society. We need more energy to operate innovation and change. No, we don’t need more of the energy that we currently have in its majority coming from fossil fuels.
Finally, what about Verena Brennan? How would she respond to Philippa’s criticism?
I would tell her that this is not true. Would you call it ‘barbaric’ to reduce your thermostat from 21 to 20°C? We are not asking people to not switch on their heating at all, but small changes like bleeding your radiators regularly can already make a big difference, especially in Ireland where 85% of energy is currently being imported. Yes, we do need to produce more clean energy ourselves but in a first instance, it is important to reduce a households’ energy demand through behavioural change and investment in energy efficiency upgrades and insulation.
Once the demand has been reduced, we can look at covering this demand with renewable energy sources. There is an imbalance in the energy distribution across the globe, no doubt! In the western world we live very wasteful lifestyles. Whether we consider ourselves ‘sustainable’ or not, we will always use more energy and water than some entire villages in Africa or Asia. This is not easily changed whether we produce more clean energy or not, the distribution of this energy will most likely always be unequal and thus not reach those people that need it the most. However, having to conserve energy is certainly a problem of the western world. It is done automatically in poorer countries where energy is a precious resource similar to water. There is great potential to create energy prosumers across the globe and we need to ensure that technological advancements travel to those countries most in need.
How do we get people to consume less energy? Do we need to change our lifestyles, or could technology and innovation provide solutions? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!