By Irina Slav
“A draft of proposals from the European Commission, seen by the Financial Times, shows Brussels projects that extra investment of €195bn will be needed between now and 2027, on top of plans to boost spending on carbon reduction. The EU will also have to cut energy consumption more than previously thought to meet ambitious net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050.”
This is a paragraph from an FT news report from last week that details the latest proposals of EU officials for reducing the bloc’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels. It’s definitely not the most touching paragraph (that honour must go to this quote: “rapidly reducing our dependence on Russian fossil fuels by fast-forwarding the clean transition and joining forces to achieve a more resilient power system and a true Energy Union”) but it is perhaps the most important.
“The EU will also have to cut energy consumption more than previously thought to meet ambitious net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050.” This is the sentence that stands out. This is the sentence that marks a watershed moment in the progress of the climate change narrative.
The demand side of the energy shift equation has largely stayed out of the spotlight during the years that the transition narrative gathered pace and so did actions pursuing this transition. For most of that time, the focus was on clean, affordable energy in abundance with falling solar panel prices and equally falling wind turbine prices, and maybe green hydrogen would become economic in just a few short years or maybe decades, but it would.
Then two years ago the pandemic — or rather governments’ response to it — threw a wrench in the energy transition works, dismantling supply chains, prompting shortages and, contrary to many an analyst and climate advocate’s expectations boosting demand for fossil fuels considerably.
Cue the European energy crunch that began last autumn, which should have undermined the argument in favour of a transition to wind, solar, and hydrogen but it didn’t because the war in the Ukraine began and actually gave a boost to that argument as the security of Russian fossil fuel supply shook under the weight of EU sanctions.
Yet the crisis was already bad enough before the war began. Last autumn, for the first time in perhaps decades, politicians had no choice: they had to tell people to start conserving energy. Advice varied from no-brainers such as putting on an extra sweater to somewhat eccentric suggestions such as making your own heater from half a dozen candles and a flowerpot. The demand side of the energy transition equation basically forced itself into the narrative as reality tends to do when it has been ignored for a while.
This wasn’t at all welcome by the conductors of the narrative. The talking points stayed the same even though reality continued to change increasingly rapidly: wind and solar are becoming cheaper, hydrogen will be viable very soon, we need to go to net zero before we destroy the planet.
The fact that wind and solar are actually getting more expensive because of raw material inflation kept and still keeps getting overlooked. But now that the EU has bet on eliminating all Russian fossil fuel imports in just five years, the importance of consumption reduction has shot straight to the top of the agenda.
To me, it looks like the EU’s decision-makers are on a carousel that is spinning faster and faster, and the thought of jumping off and taking a break never occurs to anyone. Because it would hurt, of course. Per the latest proposals cited by the FT, “It calls for a reduction of 13 per cent in energy consumption by 2030, compared with a 9 per cent cut in the previous energy efficiency directive proposal.”
Also, “Brussels is also seeking to speed up deployment of renewable energy, aiming for renewables to cover 45 per cent of all energy demand by 2030, compared with a target until now of 40 per cent. This requires more than doubling current capacity of 511 gigawatts to reach 1,236 GWh.”
last Friday, I already discussed the scheme that is supposed to enable this massive increase in wind and solar, with the “go-to” areas that each member state must designate in short order. Now, let’s focus on shrinking demand, which some of us have known for years would be a must for the net-zero plan to have any slim chance of success. Of course, you’d know this chance isn’t there if you have been following events and developments in the energy transition area long enough. But an attempt will be made. And it will hinge on lower, much lower energy consumption.
So, how do we shrink energy consumption? Again, I’ve talked about this in earlier posts but it might be a good idea to summarise what I believe is feasible in this respect. The list, in fact, is quite short: you can either make energy prohibitively expensive or you can mandate conservation through whatever mechanisms are available to you. Funnily enough, the first option has already dropped in the EU’s lap thanks to those pesky raw materials.
Making — and keeping — energy prohibitively expensive in order to encourage demand destruction is not something politicians like to do. It very literally costs them votes and budget revenues from taxes. For better or worse, they don’t need to do it deliberately, as we can see from the latest developments in the EU and the UK, and even in the U.S.
All it takes is a few miscalculated political priorities, and voila, you have yourself prices so high that millions of the people you are supposed to govern in a way that makes their lives easier are having to take out loans to pay their electricity bills and likely thinking twice about doing the laundry every day.
Prohibitively high energy prices, however, are counterproductive. They hurt businesses’ competitiveness and when businesses become less competitive, they become less profitable. The less profitable businesses become, the less tax money goes into state coffers and unemployment rises.
Governments like their tax revenues and dislike unemployment rises. So, keeping energy prices too high is not really a viable option. What we are left with, then, is the alternative: mandating energy conservation. If you think “1984” is scary, you should never read “Brave New World”. If you have already read it, you have my heartfelt commiserations. To me, Huxley was the bigger visionary.
From this paragraph on, everything is speculation, grounded in whatever scarce signs of efforts in the direction of energy conservation mandates I have come across, such as Margrethe Vestager’s advice for people to take shorter showers and government advice in Germany for more infrequent showers, for example, or the already notorious thermostat adjustment during heating season.
The mandates for lower energy use do not have to take the form of a law or a set of local regulations. It would be equally effective, I believe, to approach the issue from an information perspective. There are already plenty of examples in Europe’s recent history of how successful the information war against ideas and even scientific facts can be, so it would make sense to use such a tried and tested approach.
German Bild’s recommendation to shower less often because it is important to cultivate good bacteria while coincidentally flipping the bird to Russia’s president is one of the more recent examples of that approach. Like all good propaganda, it has a grain of truth in it, and that’s the part about the good bacteria.
The propaganda part is the less frequent showering — it assumes, perhaps correctly, that everyone who showers daily uses a chemical cleaning agent hence the good bacteria reference. Yet good bacteria could be cultivated by simply reducing your consumption of chemical cleaning agents. And the consumption of energy for water heating could be lowered by taking shorter, rather than less frequent showers, as the European Competition Commissioner suggested.
Shorter or less frequent showers have the added benefit of reducing water consumption therefore conserving vital — and scarcer — water resources. Showering less lengthily or less often begins to seem like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? And that’s just the start.
Screen time is bad for your eyes and for your brain, not to mention your social skills. Reducing screen time, then, would be beneficial for you and your wallet. Going to bed earlier is also healthier than staying up late to catch up with the news or with work or with the latest binge-worthy TV product. You’ve got to keep those circadian rhythms in check if you want to live long and prosper.
Walking is healthier than driving. So is cycling. A vegetable-rich diet is healthier than a meat-rich diet, and I won’t even mention the amount of emissions related to animal farming. It’s better for you to go vegetarian or even vegan and it’s also better for the planet.
We have all seen this messaging. It has been around for years and has only been getting louder in tune with the apocalyptic predictions of various forecasters about the Earth’s climate. Now that push is fast coming to shove, it’s likely that this messaging will become even louder.
When a message is loud and it makes sense, because the above does make sense, we are a lot more willing to accept it and adjust our behaviour in line with the message. If social networks are any indication, Europe and the U.S. are full of evidence of that message’s success.
Of course, not all will change to become healthier, more responsible inhabitants of the planet Earth while incidentally reducing their energy consumption. Many simply cannot reduce their energy consumption further because they are at the bare minimum of it, for financial reasons. Their numbers are currently on the rise because Ukraine, gas, oil, sanctions. What do you do about them, then?
Well, the only thing I can think of is boosting their numbers further and blaming the whole thing on an evil outside power that could be a country, an industry or, why not, a conspiracy. In a couple of years, most will probably be resigned to their fate, they will have internalised the evil outside power explanation and will be fully conditioned to consume less energy, a lot less energy.
That last part, by the way, I know from personal experience. About 20 years ago we had one tough spring when ancient and inadequate water mains kept rupturing every week, leaving us without water for not just hours but, once, for three consecutive days. We had to shower quickly because we didn’t know when the water will stop. Since then, I have been incapable of showering for more than 10 minutes at the very longest.
The key here is that we are an adaptive species. We need to be, in order to survive and we’ve done quite well for tens of thousands of years. Adaptability, then, must combine with some form of suggestibility, so adaptation can occur. In other words, it is quite likely that in order to survive, we have learned to believe what we are being told especially if it sounds like it makes sense and, more importantly, will be good for us.
Remember those saying that the world needs a global lockdown a la 2020 in order to keep emissions in check? Well, we won’t need lockdowns if we have planned blackouts and strict diets that will be good for us.
Note: The above is speculation. It could perhaps be even called propaganda if you’re looking at it from a certain perspective although it lacks a call to action angle, quite deliberately. But I’m willing to bet money that in the coming years we will be hearing more about how good for us all it is to consume less energy even it causes us inconvenience. The EU just doesn’t have a better move than that.
Side note: How the energy consumption reduction effort squares with the planned ban on ICE cars from 2035 I have no idea it will be certainly interesting to watch what happens.