Thursday, December 18, 2014

Transition to efficiency

Last week I attended a talk given by Prof. Dr. Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsaecker on the subject "more prosperity with less usage of resources". A long term thought leader in the field of sustainability, specifically by political and economic measures, von Weizsaecker made the following very valid points:

  • The world is going to fail on the vast majority of our climate goals and is now changing the discussion from avoiding the crisis to dealing with the consequences. Why did no one act?
  • GDP and CO2 emissions as well as GDP and consumption of natural resources are strictly correlated. That's why all developed countries want to avoid emission reductions and developing countries want to increase their footprint. It raises the prosperity.
  • We need to find a way to break this strict correlation and allow for prosperity that is clean and efficient on resources (a new "Kuznets curve"). More so, we need to not only convert existing developed economies but tunnel the emerging economies directly to that state.
  • Despite the short lived "success" of fracking and shale gas (even larger fields drain in only a few years), carbon-based energy sources oil, gas and coal are dwindling and passed their peak points. There is no alternative to switching to renewable energy sources.
  • However, even if we were to realize our currently defined climate goals and reduce CO2 emissions by 20% over 1990 levels, this would only account for a part of the footprint of a fraction of the worlds population. 
  • Therefore, von Weizsaecker proposes, we need a solution composed of:
    • 30% less CO2 emission from our energy consumption (i.e. more renewables)
    • 65% less need for energy (!!!)
    • 5% less prosperity (are we really happy with all the "stuff" we have?)
  • Radical gains in efficiency are nothing short of a technical revolution comparable to our leaps into the industrial or information age (a 6th Kondratiev wave). It will require ingenuity, innovation and fresh thinking. Entrepreneurs to the fore front!
  • In the past, most gains of efficiency have been negated by a drastic increase in use of a given resource. This is called the "rebound effect" or Jevons paradox, an old phenomena observed with many efficiency leaps. With LED lights being efficient (cost per lumen), we simply install a lot more of them and light up the planet.
  • Therefore von Weizsaecker suggest to reflect the true cost of natural resources and commons in market prices by increasing their price as we become more efficient in their use. The destruction of nature must not get cheaper by technological advances, but more expensive. 
  • Market actors must be rewarded for their efficiency gains and punished for their resource use. This will set in motion a spiral of innovation and efficiency and can ultimately lead us to a "factor 5" in efficiency.
  • One pointed question stuck with me: "What can 1 kilowatt hour do for us?" As an example, how many kWhs does it take to lift a 10 liter water bucket (say 10kg) from sea level to the top of Mount Everest (8,800 m)? Have a guess and scroll down for the answer. 
While the situation remains clearly dire overall, I found his view inspiring putting the focus on radical innovation to achieve efficiency. Rather than (only) talking about solar panels, talk about all forms of efficiency gains in transportation, manufacturing, housing, etc. Instead of just policy, we need to think innovation (although I don't subscribe to the Cornucopian world view that technology will save us all anyways by divine right).

p.s. It takes only 1/4 kWh to lift 10 kg to the top of Mount Everest (with a gravitational constant of 9.8 on our lovely planet, 1 kg for 1 meter takes 9.8 joule or 0.002722 Wh so for 10 kg and 8,800 meters that makes 0.239556 kWhs). Now compare this to your next energy bill and ask if we are using or wasting all that energy...