Conservation implies protection: the idea of keeping something safe. Over the years, great efforts have been made to conserve natural habitats, endangered species, marine ecosystems and more.
As humans have become aware of their impact on the environment, the definition of conservation has expanded to address the effects of human consumption. We are now encouraged to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” buy local and reduce our carbon footprint. The ultimate aim of these measures is to conserve the resources (such as water and energy) required for the human race to survive.
The Role of Energy in 21st-century Life
Electricity, heat and fuel are engines that drive economic growth, efficient food production and a higher standard of living. As the U.N.’s report from the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit states, “Access to sustainable modern energy services contributes to poverty eradication, saves lives, improves health and helps provide basic human needs.” Note the emphasis on sustainable services.
Wasteful practices and a reliance on fossil fuels have come with a severe cost. For example,
- Fossil fuel use accounts for 57 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
- A little over a half-trillion metric tons of carbon have been burned since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, according to calculations by University of Oxford scientist Myles R. Allen. At the current growth rate of energy consumption, the trillionth ton will be burned around 2040.
The Energy Hierarchy
In response to this crisis, some groups have begun advocating for governments to adopt a new approach to energy policies. The Energy Hierarchy, proposed by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, is a prime example. Similar to the Waste Management Hierarchy, this system arranges energy options in an inverted pyramid of priorities. The most favored options are at the top; the least favored are on the bottom:
- Energy Conservation: The elimination or reduction of energy use can be as simple as switching off appliances or preventing heat loss from buildings. Technological developments (e.g. smart meters) also have a large role to play.
- Energy Efficiency: Better-designed heat and power stations, as well as everyday appliances, cut down on needless energy losses. Examples of recent efforts include the switch to LED lighting and cars with improved fuel efficiency.
- Sustainable/Renewable Energy Production: This includes energy production from sources such as the sun, wind and tides, as well as biofuels. The ultimate goal is to improve energy accessibility and affordability while reducing environmental harm.
- Low-impact Energy Production: Low-impact energy solutions make the use of non-renewable natural resources more efficient and less damaging in the long term. The reduction of nuclear waste and carbon capture and storage are two examples.
- High-impact Energy Production: This is the current norm: the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources (oil, gas and coal) for cheap and reliable sources of power.
See our accompanying article on Sustainable Technology and Development to read more about alternative energy sources.
Will Energy Conservation Work?
Let’s imagine a world in which energy conservation efforts have taken firm root:
- Buildings are designed for maximum energy efficiency.
- Smart meters monitor every aspect of energy use.
- Carbon taxes have dramatically reduced greenhouse gas production.
- Renewable energy public transportation systems are common in urban areas.
- Energy-efficient products pack the shelves of local stores.
Will this be enough? It’s unclear.
In the book “Factor 5: Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Increase in Resource Productivity,” Ernst von Weizsäcker and his team claim that improvements to efficiency could reduce “resource use intensity” fivefold. On the other hand, pessimists argue that economic growth always comes at the cost of our environment. They claim that it’s inevitable that materials will be depleted and pollution will increase as billions of people adapt to a modern way of life. If this is the case, no amount of energy conservation or efficiency will be able to offset the effects of consumption.