Consuming myths

日期:2017-05-19 01:19:17 作者:诸项 阅读:

By Fred Pearce IT IS an article of faith, born of common sense and drummed into us by environmentalists and governments, that conserving energy will not only save us money but will also help save the planet. An increasing number of European governments, with British ministers at the forefront, believe that by promoting energy efficiency in homes, offices and factories they can meet targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases without imposing unpopular energy taxes. Indeed, in the last Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer cut value added tax on energy-saving materials from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent. But these governments could be in for a nasty shock. A leading green analyst is now claiming that policies to promote energy conservation could trigger such a sharp fall in energy prices that fuel use and emissions of greenhouse gases will actually rise. And several influential economists agree. Horace Herring has spent a decade researching energy efficiency at the Energy and Environment Research Unit of Britain’s Open University. On a personal level, he has impeccable green credentials as a cyclist and would-be promoter of rickshaws on the streets of Britain. But he says classical economists have convinced him of the folly of environmental orthodoxy. In a paper currently being circulated among analysts called Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy?, Herring answers his question with a resounding no. Most academic economists would agree. But Herring points out that this conclusion “directly challenges one of the central beliefs of environmentalists” and strikes at the heart of international policy on combating global warming. A generation of environmentalists and climate scientists has claimed that improving energy efficiency provides a “win-win solution” to the problem of global warming by providing both economic and environmental benefits. The literature of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is full of claims for the climatic benefits of cheap improvements to energy efficiency. Its second assessment, published in 1995, said that existing technology could allow an immediate 25 per cent reduction in energy use in industry, offices and homes, and a one-third reduction in transportation, “without compromising comfort or performance”. These ideas have been adopted by European governments anxious to tackle global warming while liberalising and deregulating their energy industries. But Herring claims that while energy efficiency will undoubtedly reduce the energy used for a particular task—whether running a refrigerator or a factory—this is far from the end of the story. The gains will be undermined first by the “rebound effect”: if a domestic refrigerator becomes cheaper to run, householders will invest in a larger model; or if loft insulation lowers heating bills, they will just turn up the thermostat and bask in the extra heat. Or they may buy other energy-using devices, such as a dishwasher. Then there are the “macroeconomic” effects. If improved energy efficiency makes it cheaper to run air-conditioning units, for example, more householders and car owners will buy them. Nationally, low energy prices will stimulate economic activity, pushing up energy demand. “Policy makers don’t want to confront this,” says Herring. “But unless they do, current European policies will be disastrous and there will be no hope of meeting targets for emissions reductions. There needs to be a lot more hard thinking, and much less mouthing of platitudes.” The British government’s promise to cut national carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010, while at the same time liberalising the energy industry and keeping energy prices low, is especially vulnerable. Its detailed strategy for meeting the target is due to be published this autumn in a consultation paper. But the approach, says Herring, “appears designed to increase energy consumption not reduce it”. Among economists, the case made by Herring is known as the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate, after its inventors, the American energy economist J. Daniel Khazzoom and the former chief economist at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Len Brookes. But it also has significant support among economically literate environmental thinkers. Earlier this year David Pearce, Britain’s leading environmental economist and a former adviser to successive Conservative environment ministers, argued that “energy conservation lowers the real price of energy and thus induces an energy demand expansion”. Herring also has support from Lester Brown, director of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, Donella and Daniel Meadows, coauthors of the ground-breaking book The Limits to Growth, and Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, authors of a more recently acclaimed text, Our Ecological Footprint. “Both economic theory and history support this view,” says Herring. Improving energy efficiency and escalating energy use have both been hallmarks of the entire industrial era. “They go together.” Claims that energy use and economic growth have become “uncoupled” in the past 20 years do not stand up to examination, he says. But not all energy economists agree. Over the past year, Michael Grubb of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and Lee Schipper of the International Energy Agency have been running an Internet discussion group dedicated to the issue. They have argued that mature Western economies are on a long-term path to improved energy efficiency. What might have been true in the days when advanced economies ran on coal and steam does not hold in the days of computers and a burgeoning service sector. The question remains whether the stimulus to economic growth from low energy prices will merely slow down the gains of reduced energy use or, as Herring claims, overwhelm them. The answer is likely to come as governments strive to meet their targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In Britain, ministers have been encouraged by a sharp drop in national carbon emissions during the 1990s. At 155 million tonnes, emissions of carbon in 1997 were 8 per cent down on 1990. But as the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions admits, this cut was a one-off, arising mainly because of greater use of gas and reduced use of coal in power stations. In the coming decades, gas-burning will probably grow, but it is unlikely to do more than cancel out the impact of the closure of ageing nuclear power plants. Ministers hope that future reductions in CO2 emissions will come mostly through energy efficiency measures. To this end, environment minister Michael Meacher has begun a series of negotiations with industry for “voluntary” efficiency. Meacher has no immediate plans for carbon or energy taxes, though he has not ruled them out. Herring remains an advocate of energy efficiency. “It is vital to improved economic wellbeing,” he says. The collapse of the Soviet Union had much to do with its poor record in energy efficiency. But he stresses that improved efficiency will not directly cut energy use. His recipe for cutting emissions of CO2 is the less politically palatable route of carbon taxes and regulation of the energy industry. Some economists question how much taxes can reduce energy consumption. Even quite large tax hikes might not change attitudes to energy use. Many people heat their homes and run their refrigerators and cars regardless of small changes in cost. Herring agrees, but says that taxes would also generate large amounts of cash for green investments. Two high priorities for that investment, he says, should be promoting carbon “sinks” such as forests, which can absorb some of the CO2 poured into the atmosphere,