Soaring worldwide demand for energy is driving climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions dangerously higher, and even as investments grow in new "clean" energy sources, existing technologies to reduce energy use are being neglected.
Energy remains crucial to economic development in a world where over 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. While the media and government focus has been on greener and cleaner ways to generate power through renewable sources like biofuels, wind, solar and hydrogen, experts say that major improvements in energy efficiency could dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, save money and provide the breathing space needed to improve and develop new energy sources.
Scientists estimate that to avoid dangerous climate change (generally viewed as a two-degree rise in global temperatures), world greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by about 60 percent from today's levels by 2050.
At the same time, world energy demand is projected to increase by over 50 percent between now and 2030, and that will raise energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 52 percent higher than they are today, reported the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2005 World Energy Outlook, considered the definitive report on global energy.
That energy path is unsustainable, warns the IEA, which is calling for major changes.
"The need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions means a drastic overhaul of how we produce energy," said Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a U.S. environmental group.
"We are facing the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution," Flavin told IPS.
Few people have been able to get their heads around the scope and breadth of the changes, he said.
Alternative ways of generating energy with little or no carbon emissions, improvements in energy efficiency and using less energy overall will all be needed on a massive scale. That is beginning to happen in terms of wind, solar and biofuel energy, which are growing at double-digit rates and now generate close to 10 percent of the world's energy, said Flavin.
However, energy efficiency in North America and elsewhere has been on the back burner since the oil crisis of the 1970s.
The European Union is an exception, where even centuries-old apartment buildings are lit by low-energy compact fluorescents equipped with motion detectors or timers so they only turn on when needed. By contrast, lights are on 24 hours in hallways and stairways as well as offices and stores across North America.
This fall, EU countries, already twice as energy efficient as the U.S. or Canada, announced an action plan to reduce their energy needs by another 20 percent by 2020.
"It is easier and cheaper to improve energy efficiency than produce more energy," said Nathan Glasgow, a senior consultant at the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute.
The opportunities to improve energy efficiency are nearly endless, Glasgow said in an interview.
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), headed by energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins, has designed programs for large and small companies that have dramatically reduced energy use and saved billions of dollars.
Converting coal at a U.S. power plant into energy that lights an incandescent light bulb is only three percent efficient, RMI research shows. Coal plants waste 70 percent of the energy they generate as heat, transmission lines lose another 10 percent, and so on.
Wasted heat from U.S. coal plants amounts to 20 percent more energy than Japan uses for everything, Lovins has written.
Such inefficiencies add up to hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. and more than one trillion dollars a year globally.
But governments prefer to focus on building new power plants or investing in new energy technologies like hydrogen fuel cells despite the fact that the tools to make dramatic efficiency improvements already exist, says Glasgow.
The compact fluorescent lamp is one such tool. It uses 70 to 80 percent less electricity and lasts 10 to 13 times longer than an incandescent bulb, and costs between two and five dollars.
"You'll find more compact fluorescent lamps being used in China than the U.S.," Flavin said.
India, China and other countries are facing a very different world as they develop, one with less oil and a need to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
"They know their development path will be different and could leapfrog ahead into adopting and creating new technologies," he said.
That path means using less energy while continuing to grow economically, agreed Stephan Barg, senior corporate advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The IISD is a policy research think tank based in Winnipeg, Canada.
"Efficiency is not about doing with less but getting the services (economic development) we want with less energy," Barg told IPS.
Ironically, the U.S. and Canada may have more trouble making this adjustment than developing countries.
"The way we've organised our cities in North America, with extensive unsustainable urban sprawl, makes improvements in energy efficiency difficult," Barg said.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the United States and Canada developed strong energy efficiency programs, but most of them have fallen into disuse, he said.
The Canadian government funded the development of a super energy-efficient home design in the 1970s called R-2000. But only a few thousand have ever been built because they cost about five percent more.
"If Canada had adopted R-2000 as the building standard for homes, we would be a much more energy efficient country," Barg told IPS.
The current U.S. and Canadian governments have so far refused to mandate higher efficiency standards or establish national energy efficiency policies, as European countries have done.
Humanity responds to short-term, urgent crises but often ignores long-term ones, Barg said.
"Politicians and the public don't understand the urgency of the climate change problem," he noted. "We are reaching a crisis globally with climate change. The key question is whether we will be able to respond in time."
This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.
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