Monday, December 01, 2014

Why saving electricity in Sweden may in fact be bad for the climate

As the snow flurries whirl about outside and darkness falls over North Sweden, one is tempted to turn on some of those fluorescent lamps. Conventional wisdom among environmentalists however suggests that this indulgence is one that the global climate cannot afford. It is already late in the hour and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are almost at 400 ppm. No matter how small, the mainstream view is that each contribution matters and that we all need to accept that the “age of abundance” is forever over.

Yet, when pondering global energy trends, it seems as if the poor did not get that memo. Instead they are doing exactly the same thing as we in the West did in the past, they are investing heavily in fossil energy to power their increasingly industrialized economies and booming megacities. With 3.5 billion people still lacking access to modern energy, it is not surprising that many developing countries are desperate to expand their energy infrastructure, regardless of the climatic impact. Few countries however are as fortunate as Sweden. Thanks to numerous rivers suitable for hydropower and a wise decision to build nuclear energy, Sweden’s electricity today comes almost exclusively from zero carbon sources. As developing countries often lack similar geographic fortunes and the upfront capital needed for nuclear, it is not surprising that the global share of coal power is again the highest it has been since the 1970’s. Thousands of new coal power plants are currently being built in countries as diverse as Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia. While China is finally in a position to afford more nuclear in its energy mix, India recently made a solemn promise to not cut its emissions for the coming thirty years.

One may ask what all this has to do with Sweden and a single light bulb in Umeå? Well, the key issue here is the widely shared belief that the solution to climate change is one of demand-side reduction. The problem with this belief is that it might actually work. In Sweden. So, instead of investing in new generations of nuclear reactors and breakthrough energy innovation, Swedish policy-makers may find that saving energy is actually the way forward. By making electricity more expensive at home through renewable mandates, importing carbon-intensive goods that are produced elsewhere, and not counting emissions from overseas travelling, Sweden has become the poster-child of “low carbon growth”. While this image is clearly not accurate, the all-too-expected reaction from the Malthusian camp is also misleading. Because what happens when Sweden and other rich countries only care about the demand-side of the equation is that we essentially leave the poor to themselves and the planet in peril. This is why, ultimately, every lamp we turn off in Sweden is part of the problem rather than the solution.

While mainstream environmentalists may sometimes grudgingly accept the need for breakthrough supply-side innovation they have never made such innovation a central demand of the movement. In fact, despite the many possible co-benefits (such as solving much of the waste issue), they instinctively resist research into fourth generation nuclear energy. Instead, many environmentalists keep repeating the same tired demand-side prescriptions that not only fuel ideological polarization at home but also remain wholly inadequate to stem the global growth in fossil infrastructure.

(on a much happier note, please take a moment to watch this breathtaking short movie by Erik Wernquist and narrated by Carl Sagan - as much as Malthusian thinking may dominate cultural discourse today, I am confident that it will ultimately prove to be, if nothing else, spiritually unsatisfactory for future generations)


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