Less energy, more wealth

Ernst von Weizsäcker

Energy consumption rose hand in hand with economic growth during industrialization. This cannot go on forever. Energy, after all, is a limited resource while economic growth can, theoretically, continue indefinitely.

Fossil fuels may last another 200 years, and their use causes global warming. Uranium has little more than 150 years, and nuclear power meets endless resistance. The feasibility of fusion power remains doubtful, and massive neutron and tritium flows make it an uncomfortable neighbour to nuclear fission. Renewables will grow but may well also run into environmental conflicts in the process: think of controversial large dams, fuel crop monocultures or protests against wind power ‘parks’.

High energy consumption is also politically risky. Consider the military expenses the United States and other countries incur to ‘secure’ their access to the Middle East and Caspian oil resources. And think of the vulnerability of large power plants – and the entire nuclear fuel ‘cycle’ – to terrorism and war.

Fortunately, we are much less dependent on energy than we think. Energy productivity – the amount of wealth we can extract from a barrel of oil or 1 kilowatt-hour – can be increased tenfold, at least. This may sound daring, but consider this: just one kilowatt-hour, in theory, is sufficient to lift a 15-kilogram rucksack from sea level to the top of Mount Everest twice over.

Energy productivity is high-tech, it is modern and it normally pays. A book I co-authored with Amory and Hunter Lovins (Factor Four – Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, 1997), features 20 examples where energy productivity has been quadrupled.

One is Amory Lovins’ ‘hypercar’ which is expected to consume 1.6 litres per 100 kilometres travelled. Others are buildings that need one quarter or one tenth of the energy of today’s standards to heat and cool them. Household appliances, light bulbs, air conditioners, pumping systems, office equipment and food are also covered.

What was perhaps a trifle outlandish when the book was written has now reached the market. Energy-efficient buildings have become standard in countries with reasonably high energy prices, while the auto industry has become much more interested in fuel-efficient cars.

Most encouraging, perhaps, is China’s achievement in reducing its overall annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for three consecutive years despite 7 per cent economic growth rates – mainly by closing highly wasteful factories and replacing them with energy-efficient ones. Under prevailing Chinese conditions, it is estimated, reducing each tonne of CO2 emissions by increasing energy efficiency saves $10, while doing so by substituting renewable energy for coal may cost $10.

When UNEP’s Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer, was German Environment Minister, the country introduced powerful incentives for power generation from wind, small hydro, biomass and photovoltaics. Utilities were forced to compensate small electricity suppliers at rates that fully or nearly covered the cost of production. The incentives were strengthened by the ‘red-green’ Government after the 1998 elections. Now, Germany is the world’s top producer of wind energy and a major player in photovoltaics (which received an additional push from a state-subsidized 100,000 roofs programme).

Sweden has long applied building codes for homes and offices with ambitious energy efficiency goals. Manufacturers cooperate with public authorities on efficiency standards for household appliances.

Green taxes have been introduced in most countries of the European Union, though they are far from being popular. Internationally, the most significant development is the beginning of a CO2 emissions trading system – though it is too early to judge its impact.

We, at the Wuppertal Institute, like to compare the current and future development of energy productivity with the development of labour productivity during the industrial revolution. When James Watt’s steam engine heralded the industrial revolution, productivity was deplorably low – but it increased 20-fold over two centuries. Today, the really scarce resource is not labour, but nature. It would be wise, even inescapable, to concentrate now on increasing resource – especially energy – productivity. Maybe, in 200 years similar successes will be reported in this fascinating field of technological progress

Ernst von Weizsäcker, M.P. has been Founding President, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, and is now Chairman, Bundestag Select Committee on Economic Globalisation.

PHOTOGRAPH: D Riva/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Pier Vellinga: Flip-flop to catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Jan Pronk: Nature’s warnings (Disasters) January 2001
Claude Martin: FOCUS: Millennial warning (Looking Forward) 1999
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Hermann E. Ott:
Tax bads, not goods (Climate and Action) December 1998
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate and Action) December 1998
Jan F. Feenstra: Time to adapt (Climate and Action) December 1998
Robert Watson: The heat is on (Climate change) December 1997
John Browne: A new partnership to make a difference (Climate change) 1997
Christiana Figueres and Anne Hambleton: Carbon for sale! (Climate change) 1997