Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

September 16, 2007

No More Coal: Architects Miss the Message

Category: Big Things,Economics,Editorial,News,Observations,Policy,Sustainability – Tom Harrison – 2:10 pm

Please take a minute read this one page: “Global Warming: Think You’re Making a Difference? Think Again.“. Didn’t read it? Ok, how about this quote:


Wal-Mart is investing a half billion dollars to reduce the energy consumption and CO2 emissions of their existing buildings by 20% over the next seven years. If every Wal-Mart Supercenter met this target……The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized (500 MW) coal-fired power plant, in just eight months of operation each year, will negate this entire effort.

Yet, “There are 151 new conventional coal-fire plants in various stages of development in the US Today.” Wal-Mart is doing a good thing, and Wal-Mart is the biggest company in the US (and in the world). If even half of these 151 plants are built, Wal-Mart’s efforts offset only about 1% of the global warming emissions created. And the article has six other equally amazing comparisons like this. C’mon — read it.

But there is a solution, says the article. And it is a “silver bullet”. We need to do what we have already proven we can do: make buildings more efficient. Because buildings use three quarters of coal energy, reducing energy consumption by 1/2 by 2030 would mean we don’t need those 151 coal plants. Check out “Architecture 2030“.

Right On! A Bold and Practical way to Reduce Greenhouse Emissions

My first reaction was “right on!” This is a bold proposal that attacks a major part of the global warming problem through the cooperation and unified efforts of architects and builders, and of course by their clients.

We need bold proposals. And solving one major problem will make the impact of other solutions, such as Wal-Mart’s more meaningful.

All the other efforts are pointless

Theresa looked at this a completely different way. She read the article as saying “all the good efforts of companies like Wal-Mart and the others mentioned are pointless”. If these other ideas are implemented, won’t we need fewer coal plants than the 151 mentioned in the article?

Or worse, won’t this just allow us to use the energy in some other way?

Two Opposite Views in one Household

And this is an example of where the whole problem gets really, really messy. Theresa and I are in almost complete agreement about the degree to which global warming is a crisis, and we are usually in agreement about how the problem needs to be solved.

Yet we read this one page article and came to completely different conclusions.

In my view, the idea of the 2030 Challenge is unassailable — it’s a bold movement to make a huge difference. But as I listened to Theresa’s response to the article, I realized that the message might be wrong.

I don’t think they meant to say that reducing consumption by 20% is a bad thing. But as I think about it, Theresa’s view might be pretty common.

There is no Silver Bullet Solution to Global Warming

And, I have to say, the idea promoted in the article, that “There is a ‘Silver Bullet’ For Solving Global Warming…” is and example of bad, bad thinking.

The 2030 Challenge is a good thing. It does what we need: reduce global warming emissions by eliminating the need for more coal plants by building more efficient buildings.

But it doesn’t solve the problem; it’s not a silver bullet. For one, the challenge is pretty aggressive. I don’t doubt the numbers, but the assumptions on adoption of the proposal are kind of “out there”.

So presenting this message may raise awareness, but it seems also to be polarizing. It implies an all-or-nothing approach, and that is just simply wrong.

Market Based Solution: Having Your Cake and Eating it Too

I would like to point out what I think is a subtle difference between this kind of proposal and others. The assumptions behind “The 2030 Challenge” require that each new building constructed, and an equal number of existing buildings renovated use 50% of the energy of buildings of that type in their region.

I am not sufficiently informed to debate the merits of feasibility of such a plan, but it does not constrain economic growth. Yes, it may cost more to build such buildings, and there will certainly be some winners and losers in the economic game.

Is it true? Our country can grow and prosper while making changes that reduce our use of fossil fuels.

We Need the Will to Change

It is my view that that we cannot move ahead towards a solution to global warming without some rather dramatic social changes.

And I believe failure to understand the need for social change is one of the most significantly overlooked aspects of the current debate on energy policy. Many are providing solutions, or plans, including politicians. The 2030 Challenge is.

Those against market-based changes (the coal industry, for example) tend to argue that we need more energy now because the technology to replace the energy we use is not viable yet (e.g. solar, wind, bio-fuels, and the savior of all, hydrogen fuel cells).

Corporations are against these changes because they have to be: being “for” them would be bad for their stock holders. Not many CEOs out there are enlightened (or secure) enough to support policies that promote the demise of their business.

Those talking about ways to solve the global warming crisis tend to fall into an opposing argument. We can gain energy independence through creation of alternate sources of energy; wind, solar, bio-fuels, and perhaps through improving our efficiency of cars, trucks, and buildings.

Whether the argument is right or wrong, I don’t think either addresses the root of the issue.

We Are Addicted to Consumption

But the real problem is that we are indeed addicted to oil, or more generally addicted to consumption.

For me SUVs are a proxy … a symbol of the bigger problem. SUVs are almost completely unnecessary vehicles whose only purpose is to satisfy our society’s lust for all things big and powerful. But getting rid of SUVs is not the answer; changing our attitudes about consumption in general is, in my view, the answer. If we change our views, no one will want SUVs.

And so I think we should support the 2030 Challenge, and I think we should also applaud the efforts of major companies like Wal-Mart when they make real and meaningful commitments to reduce consumption. And we should all change an incandescent bulb to a CFL.

But most important, we have to realize that we don’t need all the stuff we had. We don’t even really get any actual benefit out of much of it. Excessively large cars and houses, on excessive plots of land that are excessively far away from work, filled with excessive amounts of things that we buy at excessively low prices, on maxed out credit cards. It’s all too much.

Until we change our consumption habits, the outcome of more efficient buildings will just be an opportunity to use that coal to do something else excessive.

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