By Donella Meadows
–January 8, 1998–
The Kyoto climate conference is over, the holidays are over, it’s the morning after. Our government, with other governments, has promised to cut back greenhouse gas emissions. The promises, ours and theirs, are far too weak to stabilize the atmosphere. But they do pledge us to a historic turnaround, from steady increases to slight decreases in coal, oil, and gas consumption.
Now what to do?
Nothing? That is the intention of a majority of our Senators, wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry, who have sworn not to ratify the treaty.
Rally the citizens, stage a political fight, shame the Senate into caring more about the planet than about fossil companies? Might work, but it sounds like hard work.
There’s a simpler option. Just do it. Do what the treaty calls for. Senate or no Senate, citizens and businesses could simply stop wasting fossil fuel. The beauty of this path is that it would pay.
That claim may sound strange, because industries have spent millions to convince us otherwise. “Nations are being asked to embrace proposals that could have potentially huge impacts on economies and lifestyles,” says Mobil in one of the milder ads. “The Only Thing This Treaty Cools Down Is America’s Economy” trumpets a coalition of car, steel, chemical and oil companies.
The companies claim that the whole global warming threat is uncertain because it is based on unproved climate models. But their own dire predictions are based on much more dubious economic models. In fact industry models that predict economic disaster from fuel efficiency are so blatantly biased that one has to assume they are purposely so.
The models exaggerate the cost of energy-saving technologies and underestimate how those technologies can improve. (Car companies seem to have utter faith in the power of technology to do anything except create cars that go farther on a gallon of gas. Coal companies can’t believe that we can light lights or turn motors more efficiently or make electricity from wind or sun.)
They assume that the only way to cut back energy use is to charge huge energy taxes — but they don’t assume that such taxes would replace other taxes. Furthermore the models don’t count the many benefits of fossil fuel saving, such as less air pollution, fewer spills, less dependence on imports — not to mention a more stable climate.
There are economic models that come to opposite conclusions, but the PR campaigns don’t tell us about them. Our Department of Energy, governments of other countries, environmental groups, and even planners at Royal Dutch Shell have concluded that it needn’t hurt the economy to cut back on fossil fuels. Quite the contrary, it could increase profits and competitiveness and save us hundreds of billions of dollars in unnecessary energy bills.
The most persistent voice making that claim is that of Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute. He doesn’t have PR millions behind him, he is often accused of exaggeration, but Lovins’s claims aren’t based on computer models; they’re based on examples of actual fuel efficiencies achieved not to save the climate but to save money.
For example (taken from a paper Lovins wrote just before Kyoto, available at www.rmi.org):
Southwire, a U.S. maker of rod, wire and cable, cut its electricity use by 40 percent and its gas use by 60 percent and then went on to find still more energy savings, each with a payback time of two years or less. The lead engineer says it didn’t take exotic technology, just “an act of management will and design mentality, consistently applied.”
The carpet maker Interface recently designed a new factory that included a process requiring 14 electric pumps. The engineers sized the pumps to draw 95 horsepower. But an energy efficiency expert found a way to cut the pumping power to just 7 horsepower while reducing capital and maintenance costs and making the whole system more reliable.
A retrofit of a 20-year-old office tower in Chicago cut back energy use by 75 percent, while increasing comfort, lighting, and productivity.
The chemical industry has cut its energy input per unit product in half by “plugging steam leaks, installing insulation and recovering lost heat.” Those were the obvious fixes, says Lovins, now another 70 percent can be cut with a payback time of less than two years.
Then there are all the things consumers can do to stop pouring heating dollars out of poorly insulated houses and gas dollars out of oversized cars.
The Senate ought to ratify the Kyoto agreement. New energy technologies could compete better if government would remove subsidies to old technologies. The market would work better if government would force real environmental costs to be captured in prices (through taxes to pay for public clean-ups or rigid enforcement of private clean-ups). High efficiency standards for buildings and vehicles would reward innovators. But whatever government does, meeting the Kyoto requirements could be not only a piece of cake, but a cake we’re paid to eat.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998