Net zero effort: We need to talk about the urgent need for behavioural change

DEEP-DIVE: The energy industry is transitioning too slowly to save us. There is no technological fix to the wasteful pursuit of affluence

Energy investors are often told that solving the climate crisis must be balanced with the equally pressing need to lift people out of poverty. They are also banking on clean technologies to fix wasteful consumption habits. In the first of a two-part series, Energy Flux examines behavioural change, the elephant in the room of the climate debate, and asks whether the ‘technology will save us’ mantra is one that investors need to hear.

The world’s biggest oil companies often talk about striking the right ‘balance’ in climate policy. With much handwringing, oil and gas CEOs often caution against undermining sustainable development objectives in the blind pursuit of decarbonisation:

“Policy solutions to address climate change should be balanced, recognizing the increasing global demand for affordable energy, which is vital to addressing global poverty.” – ExxonMobil

“There is no doubt the world will need more energy: we have a growing population, many emerging countries want to take people out of poverty, and energy is at the center of any socio-economic development.” – Total

“There will be higher demand for energy as the global population grows and hundreds of millions of people leave poverty behind.” – Shell

US oil majors Chevron and ExxonMobil argue that greater fossil fuel consumption presents the only solution to the poverty crisis:

“Consider that on a daily basis, our entire planet currently consumes the energy equivalent of 280 million barrels of oil... Now, consider that in 2040 [i]t will need nearly 345 million barrels – or 65 million extra – every single day. When we speak of people escaping poverty, of people joining the global middle class, this is what is required to make that happen.” – ExxonMobil

“By every objective measure, there is no practical solution to resolving energy poverty that doesn’t include a significant role for natural gas." – Chevron

These arguments, founded on the well-established correlation between energy consumption and gross domestic product, are not wrong. Producing and consuming material goods requires energy, and this is how poorer nations intend to industrialise. Chevron and co. want this to be at the forefront of investors’ minds.

To be fair to the oilmen, the 2015 Paris agreement acknowledges that developing countries will take longer to reach peak emissions. Net zero must be achieved “on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty,” article 4.1 states.

Much of the ensuing climate debate has centred on the allowable carbon headroom for developing economies to industrialise, a bone of contention that has stymied meaningful progress on emissions reductions.

There is much less discussion about the shortcomings of GDP and material consumption as measures of human wellbeing, and how much energy humanity really needs. A better measure of wellbeing is access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation facilities, domestic electricity, an adequate diet and education. By plotting per-capita energy consumption against these metrics, there is a clear non-linear relationship:

The graph on the right shows that vast improvements in wellbeing can be made with tiny amounts of energy, and the benefits taper off quickly – suggesting that, as energy consumption increases beyond a (rather low) threshold, we have very little to show for it.

Lifting people out of poverty by focussing exclusively on household income and economic productivity relies on an enormous increase in consumption of energy products. It is also destined to fail; soaring inequality has thoroughly discredited trickle-down economic theory.

In India, a country beset by endemic poverty, meeting the entire nation’s basic needs would be significantly less carbon-intensive than pushing for runaway economic growth in the pursuit of material progress:

In the above graph, the gap between the black dotted line and the blue range could be seen as allowable headroom for India’s carbon emissions, while the delta between blue and red is waste. Any solution to India’s poverty crisis that focuses exclusively on GDP would be extremely profligate, undermining decarbonisation efforts for no justifiable reason.

These graphs were prepared by Narasimha Rao, assistant professor of energy systems at Yale’s School of the Environment, who has spent years trying to answer the question of how much growth in the energy system is required to support the universal provision of basic services.

Rao, who is also senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, established what he describes as metrics for a comfortable life: a nutritious diet, internet access, reasonable use of air conditioning, clean cooking stoves, decent health, education, mobility services and so forth.

Then they calculated the amount of energy required to build out this infrastructure and maintain it, using “tools of industrial ecology, building simulation modelling and transport sector modelling”. They found that the basic needs of all Indians could in theory be met without any net increase in the country’s total energy consumption, if only resources were more evenly distributed.

Of course, forced redistribution would severely impinge upon the rights of India’s burgeoning middle class and would in all likelihood be an unmitigated disaster. In this insightful presentation, Rao makes the observation not to advocate for some ghastly form of 21st century eco-communism, but rather to highlight the pressing issue of energy equity:

Rao’s key takeaway is that the insatiable pursuit of affluence by wealthy consumers is the primary driver of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gases – not the improvement of living standards among the world’s poorest. And while overall population growth is a discernible driver of energy consumption and emissions, the most deprived communities consume so little that their booming birth rates have negligible impacts on the earth’s carbon inventory.

It is false to present social development and climate mitigation as mutually exclusive objectives, and there are no real trade-offs to be made, Rao argues. However, this holds true only if (and this is a big ‘if’) economic development is pursued in a sustainable, smart manner: one that instils in people an appreciation of the virtues of moderation, efficiency, a circular economy, non-material pursuits and increased utilisation of consumer goods (via greater sharing of community assets and an end to ‘throwaway culture’).

Solving poverty sustainably requires no great technological breakthrough. But it does call upon policymakers to embrace a holistic approach to development. Urban design, transport networks, the built environment, health and nutrition, agricultural practices and provision of leisure facilities must all be re-imagined from a climate and sustainability standpoint.

This won’t be easy. Governments that pursue these objectives with vigour will run into vested industrial interests. Import-dependent developing nations could face geopolitical repercussions for adopting a low-growth, people-focussed economic doctrine that upsets the balance of trade with powerful trading partners.

In India, the government has yet to adopt a ‘net zero’ target, let alone implement the kind of radical policymaking required to achieve it.

Renewables are growing fast but “coal still plays a part in India’s strategic planning concerning poverty reduction,” the International Energy Agency said in its latest World Energy Outlook. “This was underlined in 2020 in India by moves to launch auctions for commercial coal mining and to invest in removing bottlenecks in coal infrastructure.”

So, solving the poverty challenge rests more on human imagination and political will, rather than technological innovation. This is what puts it within our reach and yet makes it so hard to achieve. It is a paradox of the human condition.

The ‘affluenza’ epidemic

However, any low-impact effort to address poverty will be for nought if it is not accompanied by a much greater effort to rein in consumption habits in industrialised nations. Without behavioural change, the world’s most vulnerable citizens could be condemned to misery and we would still be no closer to avoiding catastrophic climate change.

A parallel effort must be made to put sustainability at the heart of education, both in the developed and developing world. If more people questioned whether an unfettered pursuit of material wealth will actually help them achieve a sense of purpose or personal fulfilment, our resource-intensive consumer culture might be less of a burden on the planet.

Modern society is sick, but not from a viral pandemic. The Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus is one of many symptoms, not the cause. Consumerism is a disease of the mind that cuts across national boundaries, ethnicities, social status, class and educational attainment.

The phrase ‘affluenza’ was coined in the 1970s to describe the high social costs of overconsumption. Merriam-Webster defines it thus:

“Extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships.”

Share

The ‘polluter elite’

The greater the prevalence of ‘affluenza’ in a society, the more its members can contribute to solving the climate crisis by fundamentally changing consumption-oriented mindsets and behaviour.

If the richest 10% of society were to bring their emissions in line with European average and the remaining 90% made no adjustments to their lifestyles, then global emissions would drop by one-third within a couple of years, according to a report by the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change.

The report says the world’s wealthiest citizens – the “polluter elite” – must make the most dramatic changes to their lifestyles to keep the 1.5C global heating target within reach. To meet this target, the richest 1% need to reduce their emissions “by a factor of at least 30 by 2030, while the poorest 50% of humanity could increase their emissions by three times their current level”.

This is crucial because, as Professor Rao discussed above, some additional energy will be required to deliver systems and infrastructure needed to lift people out of poverty in the (entirely desirable) absence of forced redistribution of resources.

Unfortunately, the Cambridge report found that consumption trends are moving in the wrong direction: the richest are consuming and emitting more, while the middle/poorest nations are consuming less. Global poverty levels last year rose for the first time in 20 years, which the World Bank attributes to Covid-19 and the effects of climate change.

It also describes how “in all societies, the most resistance might come from the fact that the most prolific consumers and movers are also often the most powerful political actors, using their influence to quash initiatives that constrain their behaviours”.

Technological fixation

When world leaders recently committed to tighter emissions targets, there was a notable focus on technological solutions. US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said clean technology was “our generation’s moonshot” and that her department would be supporting “leaps in next generation technologies” such as carbon capture, energy storage and industrial fuels.

Granholm sees carbon removal technologies as central to the Net Zero Producers Forum, a new partnership she launched with Canada, Norway, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Separately, India and the US launched a high-level partnership to “mobilize finance” for clean energy technology innovation and deployment.

For all their promise, a fixation on technological solutions to climate change has “instead delayed the immediate acceleration of action to change behaviours or transform economies,” writes Professor Duncan McLaren from Lancaster University’s Lancaster Environment Centre.

“Merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations.”

The trouble is that nobody wants to talk about personal sacrifice. Politicians know they won’t win any votes by telling people to fly less frequently and eat less red meat.

As Energy Flux reported, the UK government made a point of “maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet” when setting its tougher 78% emissions reductions goal for 2030. This is plainly at odds with the advice of its official climate advisory committee, which said in December that reducing energy-intensive activities would be essential to meeting the UK’s sixth carbon budget, resulting in “striking positive benefits for health and well-being”.

The elephant in the room

Changing widespread energy consumption behaviours requires more than vague promises of health and wellbeing improvements for those in wealthy nations. This will be explored further in the second part in this series, which will be published two weeks from now.

Until then, the final message is this: ending poverty could require less energy and fewer emissions than some industry figures might lead us to believe. The real climate gains are to be made by changing the lifestyle choices of the richest consumers, and systems that encourage wasteful everyday behaviour.

Clean technologies are already playing a key role in enabling decarbonisation. Brushing aside the behaviour change question with promises of technological salvation is politically expedient but ultimately unhelpful to advancing the energy and climate debate.

Seb Kennedy | Energy Flux | 30 April 2021

Leave a comment

Related reading from Energy Flux: