As negotiators work out the final details of a climate change agreement in Paris, I find myself thinking about the energy I use. Any effort reduce the world’s carbon emissions will no doubt require strong national and local action. But it will also require each of us rethink how we use energy. As Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
One of the best articles I’ve read on climate change and energy use is Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece The Island in the Wind, which ran in the New Yorker back in 2008. Over the years, Kolbert has done solid, well-reasoned, calm and well-written reporting on the science of climate change, culminating in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2014, The Sixth Extinction.
In this New Yorker article, which is well worth the time spent, she summarizes the problem (that humans, to power our society, introduce about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, and that we are on pace to reach CO2 concentration twice the level it was before the industrial revolution, and an average increase in global temperature of 3 degrees Celsius.)
She then talks about solutions. Her first example is of a rural island in Denmark, that since the mid-1990s has started a project to source almost all its energy from renewables, mostly in the form of wind, solar, and biomass. It received no subsidies: projects were undertaken with loans that would be repaid with energy savings and selling power back to the grid in Denmark. The island now generates 10 percent more energy than it consumes.
The second half of the piece talks about a project started in Switzerland in the late 90s called the 2,000-Watt Society. It starts with a basic premise: current world-wide energy usage averages out to about 2,000 watts per person. But the amount of energy usage is unequal: in Bangladesh, the average person consumes about 300 watts of energy, India is a 1,000-watt society, and China about 1,500. Switzerland uses about 5,000 per person, Western Europe 6,000, and the U.S. and Canada run on 12,000 watts.
How does this work, exactly? Kolbert puts it this way:
Let’s say you turn on twenty lamps, each with a hundred-watt bulb. Together, the lamps will draw two thousand watts of power. Left on for a day, they will consume forty-eight kilowatt-hours of energy; left on for a year, they will consume seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours. A person living a two-thousand-watt life would consume in all his activities—working, eating, travelling—the same amount of energy as those twenty bulbs, or seventeen thousand five hundred and twenty kilowatt-hours annually.
The 2,000-Watt Society contends that in order to make the necessary adjustments in energy use to prevent continued climate change, and to do so in a fair way that doesn’t put the burden on the developing world, the wealthiest countries should reduce their average per-person usage to 2,000 watts. This sounds like a huge step (especially for a country like the U.S.) but the society, which has tested projects in Zurich, Bern, and Geneva. The plan calls for a major shift in the way we think about energy use: creating extremely efficient buildings, relying on public transit, shifting to renewables, improving infrastructure efficiency, and reducing air travel. The goal is to make the shift in a way that doesn’t require hardship.
And the great news is that the project works, but with a lot of rethinking and investment in new infrastructure: heat pumps, efficient insulation, and a shift to renewables to generate power. One of the project directors says there are many pathways to a 2,000-watt society: “Three things are needed: societal decisions. . . technical innovation, and the resolve of every individual to act in an energy-conscious way.”
That last point is an important one. I’ve begun to live my life thinking about energy usage, and keeping it within budget (as you would with your finances). Can you reduce driving? Because public transit is excellent in the suburb of Geneva where I live, I can do most of my errands by bike or transit, and resolve to do so. I’ve also reduced the number of airline flights I’m willing to take (one round-trip flight between Switzerland and New York, for instance is equivalent to using 250 watts continually for a year). We’re lucky on heating in that our apartment works on a heat pump, and we have no A/C. When convenient, I dry laundry on the line rather than in a drier. What’s my annual usage? I’m not sure, but I’m aware of it and try to reduce my share.
I don’t say this to brag: we all have to make the energy use choices that support our lives. Not all of us have access to efficient transit, or the resources to convert our houses to heat pumps or solar panels. But with a combination of national and local supports for infrastructure changes that shift from fossil fuel use to renewables, and pricing of carbon that takes into account the hidden costs of its use, we can begin to get closer to a 2,000-watt society.