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Less can mean more: Reducing energy consumption to manage the climate crisis

As more people consume more energy, our society moves collectively further away from mitigating climate catastrophe

Economic CrisisEnvironmentScience and TechnologySocial Movements

To change the way we consume energy, we must shift the way we think about the economy, writes Cassandra Jeffery. Image courtesy Rijksmuseum/Flickr.

I wrote a first version of this article perched at a bar on a hot May afternoon in 2023. Music thrummed through massive speakers and fans bolted to the ceiling blew hot air around to little effect. Four TVs, one in each corner of the room, broadcast a hockey game, the ice on the screen impervious to the sweltering spring heat. I remember I was the only patron sipping a beer on the patio; most folks found respite in the air-conditioned section of the bar.

Earlier that day, I went through the yearly ritual of arguing with my husband about whether we should get an air-conditioning unit for our ninth-floor apartment in British Columbia’s temperate Lower Mainland. Every year it seems to get hotter and smokier from the now annual fire season, and every year I do my best to explain that getting an air-conditioning unit will only add fuel to the climate crisis fire. As more and more people consume more and more energy, our society moves collectively further away from mitigating climate catastrophe. But what impact will our one air-conditioning unit have when we live in such a heavily consumption-driven society?

The reality is that we, denizens of the wealthy countries of the Global North, are all going to have to learn to live with less. And fast. I don’t think I need to beleaguer readers with the roster of climate crisis catastrophes and statistics. Unless you’re a hardcore climate crisis denier, we can all agree that things are changing. The 2023 wildfire season in BC was the worst on record, destroying more than 2.84 million hectares of forest and land. Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate, and hundreds of homes and structures were lost or damaged. The impacts to people’s health and wellbeing are unquantifiable, and many residents are still reeling from the 2023 wildfire season while nervously awaiting the violence of 2024 fires. On top of the fires, we’re facing serious challenges with our domestic food system. Floods, landslides, and droughts are happening every year and in all seasons. Against the backdrop of all these compounding crises, energy demand is expected to rise, and at least in the BC context, managing unseasonable temperature swings is a key factor in projected demand increases. A spike in energy to heat homes in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland region during the winter of 2024 being another example.

Renewables and carbon capture—enough to manage climate crisis?

By 2050, power consumption globally is expected to triple as electrification expands and living standards rise. For a comparatively small population of 39 million people, Canada is one of the largest consumers per capita of energy, surpassing the United States, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Norway. Statistics from the Energy Institute suggest residents of Canada consumed an average of 367.78 gigajoules per capita in 2022. For context, the 2022 global average was 153 gigajoules per capita with Europe averaging around 142. Canada’s sixth-place ranking for primary energy consumption in 2022 doesn’t offer much solace, either. Primary energy consumption per capita in Canada has jumped 45 percent from 1965 to 2022, bringing the average kilowatt-hours per person up to 102,160 from 70,550 kWh. Primary energy consumption refers to the energy inherent in natural resources such as crude oil, coal, and wind before transformation. Total energy consumption per capita refers to the aggregate measure of energy consumed divided by a country’s population. Globally, total energy demand has recovered from COVID-19-related reductions, and “despite record levels of investments in renewable energy, global greenhouse gas emissions” have reached new heights. Energy transition is not on track to meet climate targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Despite this bleak outlook, renewables are projected to account for 80-90 percent of power generation globally by 2050, and the development of still largely unproven carbon capture technology has been touted as a remedy for centuries’ long fossil fuel emissions. Yet these tools for tackling the climate crisis—renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, and greater energy efficiency—will not mitigate the effects of the climate crisis without a simultaneous decrease in total energy demand globally. Reducing energy demand is difficult, though, because of its connection to economic growth: as the economy expands, our need for energy to produce more goods grows too.

Let’s start with renewables. They emit far less carbon than fossil fuel generation but require raw materials to produce and fossil fuels to extract and transform these inputs. As our demand for energy increases, we will need to extract more minerals and metals to build more fields of solar panels, wind farms, and water-powered dams. Both the process of extraction and clearing for construction have devastating impacts on ecosystems, and unhealthy ecosystems cannot withstand rising temperatures, giving rise to extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, forest fires, and floods. The effects of these climate catastrophes are felt predominantly in countries where mineral mining occurs without stringent labour and environmental protections, while the raw materials mined often support energy sectors in wealthier countries.

Advancements in energy efficiency and carbon capture technologies will not suffice either—not without decreasing energy consumption. In general, evangelizing any technological innovation to address the climate crisis ignores the underlying reality that high-income, heavy carbon-emitting countries are simply consuming too much. Looking to artificial intelligence as a beacon of hope amidst the escalating climate crisis is a case in point, as science journalist Andrew Nikiforuk points out.

Particularly in high-income countries, energy efficiency technologies have had the counterintuitive effect of increasing energy demand and consumption because energy is cheaper and more readily accessible. In keeping with the Jevons Paradox, a group of economists found that energy efficiency improvements at the household level lead to rebound effects that offset potential energy and emissions savings. Their study suggests that not only are households consuming more energy because efficiencies reduce the cost, but they are also consuming more goods and services that require energy to produce. In other words, the cheaper our electricity bill, the more disposable income we have to purchase other goods and services and the more energy is pumped into meeting the increased demand for these goods and services. The energy saved from these efficient technologies does not necessarily offset the energy generation and carbon emissions from the increased production of goods and services.

Carbon capture technology, on the other hand, aims to capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere and is usually designed for sources of heavy carbon emissions, such as fossil fuel power plants or industrial facilities. Carbon capture technologies are expensive to build and operate and they require significant inputs of energy to run, which may be sourced from an emissions-producing fossil fuel. For this reason, calculating the effectiveness of carbon capture technology requires an assessment of CO2 levels avoided rather than CO2 levels captured, but there are currently no obligations for fossil fuel producers to communicate these figures transparently to the public.

The cost of carbon capture technology varies based on the type of technology used and the level of C02 concentration in the emissions stream: the lower the C02 concentration in the gas, the higher the energy demand required for separating out the C02. Estimated costs for carbon capture with concentrated C02 streams, such as from natural gas processing, ranges from CAD $27-48 per tonne of C02 captured. More diluted gas streams, such as coal-fired power plants, steel, cement, and some hydrogen production have a higher price tag, in the range of CAD $50-150 per tonne of CO2 captured or CAD $45-205 per tonne of C02 avoided. These estimates do not include additional costs, such as transportation or storage. Retrofitting a natural gas-fired power plant at an oil sands facility is estimated to cost CAD $111-144 per tonne of CO2. The International Institute for Sustainable Development questions whether the limited payoff is worth the significant financial price tag, while the United Nations has stated that these technologies are “economically unproven, especially at scale, and pose unknown environmental and social risks.”

In some cases, carbon capture has been used to increase oil production and extend the life of wells, a counterintuitive use for a technology that is marketed as an emissions-reduction tool. Of the seven commercial carbon capture projects currently up and running in Canada, five are in the oil and gas sector, one is in the coal-fired electricity generation sector, and one is in the agricultural sector. These seven projects combined capture a mere 0.05 percent of national emissions.

In Canada, the Pathways Alliance, a coalition of Canada’s six largest oil sands producers have a plan to build a carbon capture network in Alberta that “proposes a combination of technologies to capture, transport, and store C02 emissions from over 20 oil sands facilities.” The cost of developing and implementing these technologies is estimated at $16.5 billion, and the Alliance is expecting to pay for it with “substantial government subsidies”—namely, our tax dollars. In spite of all the technological, fiscal, and environmental red flags, carbon capture technology continues to be a pillar of Canada’s climate change strategy.

Just to clarify, I am not advocating for a brake on technological exploration, especially if it may help manage the climate crisis, but we need to think more critically about how these technologies are being used, whom they benefit, and if they adequately address the root cause of the climate crisis. Grappling with these big questions presents opportunities to constructively critique the economic and social structures that underpin everything, including the energy sector, and generate new ideas to create a more equitable society that isn’t as vulnerable to climate catastrophe.

Photo by Gilles Sabrié

Energy and the growth-at-any-cost economic model

“The idea of a non-growing economy may be anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is anathema to an ecologist,” points out British ecological economist Tim Jackson.

To change the way we consume energy, we must shift the way we think about the economy. Our immediate and seemingly infinite access to fossil hydrocarbons has vastly increased the energy available in our human economy, contributing greatly to the scale of growth in populations, productivity, and modern advancements. In other words, we can do more and have more with less energy, which in turn gives us more time and energy to produce more and buy more. And so, the cycle of economic growth continues indefinitely. The catch, however, is that we live on an ecologically fragile planet with ultimately finite natural resources. Theoretically, natural resources can replenish themselves but we are currently draining surplus energy from the Earth faster than natural processes can replenish it. At the same time, capitalism is contingent on dense energy extraction, which as we know, negatively impacts ecosystems and exacerbates the climate crisis.

Our growth-at-any-cost economic model dismisses negative impacts on ecosystems (including human societies) as “externalities.” When only the financial costs of energy extraction are deemed relevant to the growth model, it’s easy to see how factors such as forest health, ocean acidification, and cancer rates in human populations are discounted. The true financial costs of the increased burden on the health care system or water restoration projects, for example, are not factored into GDP growth rates.

For decades economists have been calling into question the long-held myth that GDP growth accurately reflects our realities and is a good gauge of societal wellbeing. Some critical economists turn to the degrowth model as a way to consider both planetary boundaries and the physical and psychological wellbeing of the planet’s inhabitants, including humans. This model seeks to situate human systems of production and consumption within broader planetary ecosystems. The term degrowth is often confused with negative GDP growth, which is incorrect because such a state would be considered a recession or depression when prolonged. By contrast, degrowth refers to a “trajectory where the ‘throughput’ (energy, materials and waste flows) of an economy decreases while welfare, or wellbeing, improves.” The scale of a degrowth economy will inevitably shrink GDP by virtue of declines in throughput: if the consumption of material goods and services decreases, so too does the demand for production of material goods and services and the exploitation of the environment and people.

Thinking about the economy in terms of degrowth runs contrary to classical economic narratives but, as scholar Giorgos Kallis points out, the economy is not a fixed and independent system. Rather, it is a social and political construct: “an invention of people in particular societies to represent and organize part of their experiences.” This construction is constantly evolving, influenced by social norms of the day and susceptible to scrutiny. The economy is not an indisputable law of physics, and therefore can be contested and reconfigured based on evolving data. The current structure of the economy is, however, a system of production for profit designed to amass wealth for an increasingly small proportion of people at the expense of the physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of an increasing majority of people and the biophysical health of ecosystems. Surplus is required for investments and economic growth. For capitalists to create surplus, something or someone must be exploited somewhere in the world. If everyone was paid the actual value of their labour, there wouldn’t be surplus to reinvest, and if we didn’t exploit the environment for natural resources, we wouldn’t have surplus energy to fuel exponential growth.

Proponents of perpetual growth of our energy-based economy tend to proceed from the assumption that greater energy access at a lower cost will ensure all boats rise together on the tide of trickle-down economics. But from what we’ve seen to date, this theory hasn’t translated into equitable stability for the majority; the consumption divide between high-income and low-income countries persists and has widened in recent decades. Income inequality within nation states has deepened, too. Ecosystem devastation and increased emissions from resource extraction and energy generation have affected all populations, but the impacts are disproportionately felt in rural and remote communities and between social classes. In many of these cases, the financial benefits of resource extraction in rural and remote communities do not extend proportionally to the broader population, but rather accrue to corporate stakeholders. Instead of grappling with these deficiencies, proponents of the prevailing economic model tend to dismiss degrowth theory, often labelling it as “crazy” or impossible. Resorting to name calling instead of critically engaging with an idea doesn’t reflect well on degrowth naysayers; it’s not unreasonable to assume that they speak on behalf of those who have the most to lose from a model that challenges excessive consumption in the interest of a healthy planet and the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of our fellow humans.

There’s also the challenge of redesigning our institutions to support a different type of economy. Modern government policies, academic institutions, and international governance institutions were established and continue to operate directly and indirectly to promote capital accumulation that’s rooted in natural resource extraction and the extraction of surplus value from workers. Nation states develop policies to maintain production and consumption, and resource extraction to fuel the production of the things we buy. Despite the devastating impact this cycle of infinite consumption and growth has on climate stability, nation states continue to promote its legitimacy domestically to secure status and compete internationally. A topical example would be increasing domestic GPD by investing in green technology to court international investors and attract talent from abroad. Policies to bring about a green economic boon are supported by academic institutions funded by the state to research topics with specific agendas. The gains that allowed wealthier nations, such as Canada, to establish its governance and academic institutions were accumulated through the colonization of people and ecosystems during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the protection of these gains now continues through international exploitation propped up by global capitalism. One only has to look at organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to see how wealthy nations use their dominance in the global capitalist system to exploit low-income nations and protect their wealth. The IMF provides loans to low-income countries on condition that these countries intensify energy extraction to increase GDP growth and exploit wage labour to compete on global markets, by slashing workers’ rights and consolidating markets to increase exports, for example. The benefits of this model are disproportionately tilted to wealthy nations receiving interest payments on loans and cornering new export markets for natural resources in exchange for cheap goods and services.

Demonstrators take part in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, Philadelphia, 2016. Photo from Flickr.

Less can mean more

An economy largely driven by material consumption that is supported by natural resource consumption at the cost of our planet’s health is unsustainable. In hyper-consuming countries, we’re inundated with choice, and we’re encouraged to excessively consume to keep the economy humming along, but do these consumer goods make us any happier? Many studies suggest that connection and community contribute more to wellbeing than designer clothes and gadgets.

Regardless of our consumption preferences, the need for a degrowth economy will become increasingly urgent as our ecosystems are further degraded and natural disasters become more frequent. Resisting consumer culture, reducing energy consumption, and advocating for collective societal and economic change are important personal choices; however, these options pale in comparison to the impact one large corporation can have by simply reducing production. Our individual choices must be mirrored by extraction and production restrictions such as caps on oil extraction and production of cheap plastics; and we must examine the role of marketing and advertising industries that peddle fulfillment through merchandise.

The other piece of the consumption and climate crisis puzzle rests in the hands of our governing bodies and public leaders, including policy makers, civil servants, and politicians. It is up to them to develop and implement people-and planet-focused policies and laws that reflect a different conception of what defines a successful economy in light of our world in crisis. Of course, politicians and corporations will not make these required changes willingly.

The flaws of capitalism are entrenched and cyclical: Politicians rely on GDP growth to entice domestic and foreign investments, and corporations promote increased consumption while simultaneously reducing quality of service and safety to increase dividends to their shareholders who in turn re-invest gains (think Canadian airlines reducing seat sizes and increasing baggage fees while receiving government bailouts during COVID). Our political system is beholden to capitalism because things like the promise of strong and steady GDP growth wins votes. And yet growth in much of the Western world has been decelerating for at least two decades, while the lion’s share of growth has ended up in the pockets of the ultra-wealthy.

The difficult part of this problem is that there isn’t one singular “bad guy” to fixate on. Of course, there are a lot of rich people who have amassed a lot of wealth under our current system, and they both invest in and work for powerful corporations which have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many of these rich and powerful people are smart and understand exactly what they’re doing (think Bill Gates), as they champion and benefit from green technofixes within an economic model that disenfranchises people and exploits lands and waterways. Most of us, however, are stuck operating in an economic system that can make us feel powerless; a system that ties our worth to production and attempts to promote individual choices to recycle or refrain from home air-conditioning, while discouraging and repressing collective organizing to dismantle an exploitative system.

Unions, labour leaders, civil and environmental activists, teachers, academics—essentially anyone that has the ability and platform to mobilize collective action and encourage critical thought of seemingly fixed truisms—has a role to play in challenging and dismantling our current capitalist system. But it’s not just about education and clear communication: it’s about articulating a vision for the future that allows people to see themselves in it, a vision that values the social, emotional, and physical wellbeing of all communities over limitless profit growth. It’s important that this vision of the future remain flexible and adaptable, allowing people to engage with it and shape its progress through democratic exchange. We need to contend with the intersections of capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and democracy, and raise fundamental questions about whether what has been called the “imperial mode of living” is the best and only way to live, especially since the privileged way of life in the Global North comes at the expense of other people elsewhere in the world and at the cost of our planet. The challenge ahead of us is two-fold: amass support around these ideas and work toward social change by influencing and holding politicians accountable, and simultaneously, challenge the confines of capitalism by focusing our energy and attention on people and our natural environment. The possibilities of the latter, unlike economic growth, are infinite: volunteering in our communities, spending time outdoors, caring for friends and family, reaching across social, economic, class, and cultural divides to generate understanding and dialogue, participating in civil discourse and grassroots activism, prioritizing creativity, and shifting our mindsets to be less individualistic are just a few examples of energy spent outside the consumption-production cycle. At the individual level, it’s slowing down enough to appreciate quality over quantity.

Somewhere between technological evangelism and anarcho-primitivism there are policy ideas that can fundamentally change our understanding of a successful economy, and with organized social movements supporting these ideas, we can democratically transition our societies to live in a way that is more appropriate to our world in crisis. If we fail to transition to a less-is-more mindset soon, ecological collapse will engender all kinds of scarcity in the form of famine, resource depletion, mass migration and geopolitical tensions. If our current trajectory is any indication of our future, these global disasters will not be managed democratically.

Almost a year since I first drafted this piece, wildfires from 2023 continue to burn as affected residents and first responders anxiously wait to see if 2024 will set a new precedent for devastation. It’s true, our current situation is dire, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless. While thousands fight to save their homes and their livelihoods from fire, policymakers, politically engaged citizens, and average consumers alike can push the dial of progress forward from the ground-up. We have a real opportunity to build a society that is more connected to the things that truly matter—emotional, physical, and psychological safety, family, friends, community, solidarity, sharing, learning, listening, feeling fulfilled, and understanding and appreciating our natural environment and our role in it. Let’s not waste it.

Cassandra Jeffery holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia and is the recipient of a Simons Award in Nuclear Disarmament and Global Security for research into the political economy of nuclear energy.

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