After the American Century
I recently spent two days at the University of Michigan, attending a conference dealing with sustainability and the US / China relationship. My brief was to deliver a plenary lecture on the history of US energy use, and what that history suggests about the future.
The background for this discussion is the major shift in the sources of pollution that has taken place during the previous five years. In c. 2006 the United States released more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other country. Since then the US has reduced its carbon footprint, and at the same time its total energy use has stopped growing. In contrast, China's economy has been growing at a rate of 9 or 10% every year, and its energy use has shot well beyond the US level. In fact, China alone released more CO2 last year than the United States, Germany, and the UK combined.
When one adds the CO2 from Brazil, Russia, and India, the other "BRIC" nations, the pollution balance shifts even more dramatically. These four emerging economies taken together are demanding more and more energy and they are satisfying this demand mostly through the older polluting technologies. Alternative energies receive lip service. Indeed, the many Chinese delegates to the meeting in Michigan kept repeating that the pollution was created to manufacture things for the West, and therefore the CO2 releases should not be counted against China.
This is a curious argument. Chinese factories choose to be highly polluting of their own water and soil in order to keep prices down, a subject that was dealt with at the conference. These factories also choose to pay workers poorly in order to keep prices down, a topic that however was scarcely mentioned. Exploiting their own land, air, people, and energy resources in a short-sighted manner, the Chinese are making a good deal of money. But the CO2 somehow, they think, is not their responsibility.
In contrast, almost all the large western economies have managed to reduce their CO2 levels in the last decade. One must admit that they start from an entirely different position. Per capita, Americans, Germans, and Brits all use far more energy than the average Chinese and enormously more than the average Indian. Starting from a position of excessive energy use, the West can cut back largely by adopting new technologies that are more efficient and less polluting.
The overall trend is worrisome. The BRIC national economies are growing rapidly, and their CO2 emissions are keeping pace. This is not a sustainable situation. Nor is it a necessary situation.
I explained why in my lecture. Drawing on my Consuming Power, I briefly summarized the previous American energy regimes from colonial times to the present: muscle power, water power, steam power, electrical power, gas and oil, and the never entirely realized nuclear regime.
I then drew several conclusions.
First, that the US has had little or no historical experience with shortages. Shifts in energy use were driven by consumer demands for more rather than the need to replace disappearing sources.
Second, that since c. 1820 there have been new energy regimes roughly every 40 years. This strongly suggests that the shift to alternative energies will also take four decades, and that it will not entirely replace but rather supplement previous energy sources.
Third, statistics show that since c. 1940 the largest growth in energy use in the US has been in the consumer sector. Industry has been much better at curbing its appetites. The good news is, that, based on studies of best practices - i.e. using existing technologies - the US could cut its total energy use by 50%. This would not entail any hardships or major changes in lifestyle. Rather, this would mean that per capita US energy use fell to the level of Germany or Denmark. The existing technologies include improved housing insulation and heat exchangers, already in use in Germany, that come close to eliminating the need for most domestic heating or cooling. Heat pumps, passive solar, solar panels, geothermal, burning waste, and wind power together provide a good mix of alternatives. Utilized together with pumped storage of hydro power, they eliminate the bogus argument raised by the oil, gas, and coal companies, who claim that alternative energies cannot provide energy around the clock, because the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.
Fourth, half of the reduced US energy demand could be met though a mix of alternative energies, including far more than wind and solar power. Again, new technologies are not necessary. What we already have is sufficient to achieve this result. But note that the cost of solar power has been steadily falling, at a rate that economist Paul Krugman estimates to be 7% every year.
In other words, rather than set a goal of unchanged total use, of which 25% is to be alternative energy, I firmly believe that the US goal should be to reduce its energy consumption by half and satisfy the remaining energy demand by using alternative energies. Moreover, the BRIC nations could do the same thing. Rather than adopt old-fashioned technologies, such as coal-fired electrical plants, they could move directly toward the sustainable goal. Their models should be Denmark and Germany. They should not measure themselves against the US, whose energy use is indefensible and unsustainable. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Chinese have begun to understand this more quickly than the US itself. Certainly China has moved to be a global leader in solar energy.
The fundamental problem of excessive energy use is not technological, but social and political.