You often see glib statements like “The world will need 35% more energy by 2020.” Often, these seem to be based on an approach little more sophisticated than looking at the trend in energy growth over the last few years and extending it out another twelve. Thought about more intelligently, we see that there isn’t some mythical quantity of energy that will be demanded: people will simply make choices in the face of the incentives that are presented to them and their own desires. If those choices and incentives favour a lower energy mode of living, it is entirely possible that we could cut total energy use at the same time as the population and standards of living continue to rise.
Thought about that way, there are many ways in which we can change what the quantity of energy demanded will be. People don’t want X Joules to keep their houses warm and Y Joules to transport groceries. They want warm homes and convenience. These things can be done at a much lesser energy cost than is the case today. Critically, reducing demand for some quantity of energy – say the 1000 MW or so a new nuclear plant could provide – may well be cheaper than actually building the plant. Making buildings, vehicles, and factories more efficient can go a long way towards that. So too can cutting back on terrifically wasteful uses of energy. One critical route to achieving this is to change the incentives for energy producers. As long as their profits rise when they sell more and fall when they help people cut back, they will be a perverse force pushing for less sustainable lifestyles. Regulation can be re-crafted to ensure that halving a home’s energy use is a boon for the owner, the utility, and for the planet.
Thoughtlessly accepting that energy demand must continue growing shows both a lack of adequate concern about climate change and a lack of imagination. Building anti-power plants instead would mean keeping the landscape and air clearer, keeping carbon safely in the ground, and working towards a future where one’s energy use and one’s quality of life aren’t slavishly locked together.